November 26, 2008 in City

Probe links Valley fire to pit

Prosecutor may file criminal charges for July blaze that razed 11 homes
Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer
 

Criminal charges could be filed over a massive fire that destroyed homes in Spokane Valley last summer, under a recommendation by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The state investigation, released Monday, supports the Spokane Valley Fire Department’s ruling that the blaze began with a recreational fire started by a 16-year-old boy in a fire pit in a tree stump near surgeon Tracy Berg’s house at 1915 S. Eastern Road. Berg thought the fire pit was on her property, but investigators determined it was on undeveloped land owned by Spokane architect Glen Cloninger.

The state had issued a burn ban a week before the boy started the fire July 7. The stump’s roots smoldered for days before strong winds on July 10 sparked flames that grew into the 1,000-acre Valley View fire that burned 11 homes and cost more than $3 million to fight.

“I wish that these folks had been paying more attention to county burn bans,” state Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland said in a press conference Tuesday. “This thing could have been a hell of a lot worse than it was.”

The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office will decide if either the boy or Berg should be cited for violating the burn ban or face other criminal charges. The state Attorney General’s office could also pursue civil damages, Sutherland said.

A lawsuit filed by Cloninger against Berg is pending. Neither could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Berg’s lawyer, Tammy L. Williams, issued a statement saying that she and Berg were “disappointed” by the DNR’s conclusion and that they’ll continue their own investigation.

Neighbors were often concerned about the size of fires in the pit, which Berg said she’d been using since 1995, according to the DNR report. Some said they’d called 911 after seeing bonfires on the property.

Janis Olson told investigators the fires were like “drinking and driving,” according to the report.

“It was a matter of time before something like this was going to happen,” Olson said, according to the report.

Olson said she’d reported the blazes to the Fire Department several times. Her husband, Arthur Olson, said he nearly called 911 over the July 7 fire, according to the report. Another neighbor, Mike Babinski, told investigators about a neighbor who had “complained several times to him about the burning that was taking place at Berg’s,” the report reads.

The boy, who the newspaper isn’t identifying because he’s a juvenile and isn’t charged with a crime, got Berg’s permission to start the fire with a few friends.

The youths swam in a pool and roasted marshmallows around the fire for a couple of hours before Berg told them to put out the blaze and leave because she was going to bed, according to the report. The boy doused it with a garden house, and Berg told investigators she checked on it each morning before the Valley View fire.

Berg has retained William Fisher, a retired DNR fire investigator, and private fire investigator Michael Fitz to conduct their own investigation, according to documents from the lawsuit.

The burn ban issued June 30 prohibited burning debris on DNR-protected land, which included the land where the fire pit was located, said Patty Henson, DNR spokeswoman.

Debris found in the fire pit showed the July 7 fire included prohibited items such as garbage, which always requires a burn permit, and forest debris, which was prohibited by the ban. The size of the fire also meant that, even if no ban was in place, the fire would have needed a permit, Henson said.

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or meghannc@spokesman.com.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email