January 13, 2009 in City

Property owners sue BNSF over 2007 fire

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Eleven property owners who live or own land near Marshall, southwest of Spokane, have filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway for causing a 365-acre wildfire in summer 2007.

The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, cites a state Department of Natural Resources investigation that concluded a carbon buildup in the stack of a BNSF locomotive spewed hot cinders, which started a series of fires along the railroad right-of-way.

BNSF was negligent, the suit contends, because 36 similar fires caused by the railroad’s locomotives broke out along the same right-of-way since 1970.

Several of the fires sparked on Aug. 11, 2007, merged, becoming what was called the Marshall Complex Fire, causing evacuations of homes between Marshall and Cheney.

“These fires transformed a beautiful, pristine, green, living environment into an ugly, blackened and scarred landscape of standing, but decimated trees,” the suit alleges.

The fires destroyed a home, fences and other personal property. Smoke, soot and flames also damaged soils and wildlife habitat, the suit says.

Among other effects, the fires caused increased noise, erosion, clouds of dust stirred up by wind, loss of natural wind breaks, noxious weed growth and hotter temperatures due to the lack of shade, the suit claims.

It accused the railroad of violating state law by creating an “actionable nuisance” and causing an “actionable trespass” on the plaintiffs’ private property.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas, of Seattle, had no comment on the filing of the suit.

“We do not comment on legal matters at this point,” he said.

The suit, filed by Spokane attorneys Richard Eymann and Steven Jones, seeks unspecified damages for monetary losses, mental anguish and emotional distress, along with “substantial expenses” incurred by the plaintiffs.

The suit asks for a jury trial and treble damages if the panel returns a judgment favoring the plaintiffs.

“There is no question that BNSF should admit responsibility and compensate these families,” Eymann said.

Preventive measures by the railroad would not have allowed the carbon buildup emissions to occur on a hot, summer day, igniting dry needles and other combustibles along the railroad’s right-of-way, he said.

“An ounce of prevention could have averted millions in losses,” he said. “Someday, I hope all railroads wake up to that fact.”

Damages from the loss of tress and land restoration alone are estimated at $10.7 million by a certified arborist, the suit says.

Plaintiffs bringing the suit are: Jason and Laura Jongeward; Gordon and Jeannie Jongward; Richard and Patricia Linn; Eric and Lisa Koohns; Charles Potter; Joann Potter; Scott and Michelle Simmons; Rick and Chris Hosmer; Jack Gillingham; Keith and Marianne Geschke, and Randy and Colleen Geschke.

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