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Woman still owes for fire, state says

Fri., April 17, 2009

$773,223 sought from Valley surgeon

The woman blamed for a massive wildfire in Spokane Valley last summer that destroyed 11 homes still owes the state nearly $775,000 for the cost of fighting it.

The state attorney general’s office sent Tracy Berg’s lawyer a letter a couple of days ago asking about the bill, which was mailed more than three months ago and is still owed in full, said Loren Torgerson, regional manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Berg, a surgeon at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, was linked to the July 10 fire after investigators determined a recreational fire she allowed a 16-year-old to set in an old tree stump near her home smoldered in underground roots for three days before high winds sparked flames that grew into the 1,000-acre Valley View fire.

“It’s very routine for us to try to recover these costs,” Torgerson said. “Based on the investigation that we completed, we felt that it was appropriate.”

The stump fire was in violation of a burn ban issued by the state and one of what neighbors told investigators was a trend of bonfirelike blazes in the tree stump, which Berg said her family had used as a fire pit since 1995, according to the investigation released Nov. 25.

Torgerson said Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker was still deciding whether to file criminal charges. Tucker did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Three lawsuits against Berg filed by homeowners and landowners affected by the fire are pending in Spokane County Superior Court.

Berg’s home on South Eastern Road was not damaged by the blaze.

Reached by phone Thursday, Berg directed questions to Seattle lawyer Tammy L. Williams, who did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The fire cost $3.5 million to fight, nearly $2.5 million of which was paid by a state fund. The state Department of Natural Resources paid nearly $1.1 million, Torgerson said.

The portion not covered by Berg’s $773,223 bill was deemed “not directly related to the incident,” he said.

The bill sent from Assistant Attorney General Michael Rollinger to Williams includes the state statue authorizing the department to collect the money, which emphasizes that collection is authorized if a wildfire was caused by negligence.

“Even without a burn ban in effect, a prudent landowner would not have ignited a fire under the circumstances,” Rollinger wrote in a five-page letter Dec. 30, which details missteps the investigation determined Berg made when she allowed the boy to start the blaze.

The letter, which asks for payment in a check or money order, told Berg that the department would pursue $7,500 a month in interest as well as attorney fees and court costs “if we proceed to litigation.”

“These costs and fees will be substantial,” Rollinger wrote, noting that Washington’s law is “unusual” because it allows the state to recover such fees.

Berg hired private investigators to look into the cause of the blaze. Williams said in a prepared statement in November that the investigation was proceeding, but it’s unclear what the status is now.

Torgerson said the state sometimes allows for payment plans but works on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re pretty diligent not only in this incident but in others to try to recover the costs,” Torgerson said.

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or at

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