July 10, 2009 in City

Healing slow a year after Valley View fire

Five of 11 burned homes rebuilt; legal fights ahead
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane County firefighters run past owner Jim Gibbard’s burning house at 9700 E. 24th Ave., July 11, 2008. The wildfire destroyed eight homes.
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A year removed from a wind-fueled inferno that claimed 11 homes, the ridge bordering the Dishman Hills Natural Area is a lush carpet of grass where a massive stand of pine and Douglas fir once stood.

While signs of new life abound in the area, not all is quick to regrow in the wake of the 1,000-acre Valley View Fire that forced mass evacuations and cost $3.5 million to fight.

County records show that only five homes have been rebuilt by owners who indicated their structures were lost in the fire. One home that has not been rebuilt, a neighbor said, is the multi-million dollar Karen Pring mansion, whose charred concrete columns quickly became the face of the fire’s devastation.

After logging crews cut down the dead and dying trees, two things remain: a legal fight over who bears responsibility for the fire, and the lessons learned to prevent similar problems in the future.

Legal entanglements

At least four civil lawsuits have been filed against Spokane Valley surgeon Dr. Tracy Berg after investigators found that a 16-year-old friend of Berg’s son improperly doused a recreational fire that Berg allowed the boy to burn in a large hollow stump located on a neighbor’s property in violation of a burn ban.

Investigators, who said last month neither Berg nor the boy would face criminal charges, said the stump’s roots smoldered for three days before 50 mph winds reignited the fire.

Berg still owes the state nearly $775,000 for the cost of fighting the fire. Neither she, nor her attorney, Tammy L. Williams, of Seattle, returned phone calls seeking comment.

Spokane architect Glen Cloninger, on whose property the stump sits, filed the first lawsuit against Berg. Lawsuits from more than 20 homeowners and Avista Utilities followed.

Berg’s attorney has been notified of at least 12 additional claims against Berg, according to a court document filed April 10.

Ted Hansen, a neighbor seeking damages in one of the suits, said he wasn’t sure how the case was proceeding. “I had no animosity there whatsoever,” he said about the cause of the fire.

Memories run deep

Hansen remembers how deputies evacuated him, his wife and their horses. Hansen said he later got past a barricade, returning with his brother’s grandson and two nephews to protect the log home he built by hand.

Hansen, a 64-year-old retired carpenter, said the water pressure at his house had dropped to near zero after his fleeing neighbors left sprinklers running in an attempt to thwart the flames.

“That fire created its own wind. I know they said the wind was 50 mph, but man was it flying,” Hansen said. “You could not believe it.”

Without water pressure for a garden hose, the four men ran with 5-gallon buckets of water from his house toward the approaching flames.

“We were fighting the flames when the house just to the south caught fire. You could hear the propane tanks exploding,” he said.

Hansen and his family battled from about 6 p.m. to well into the morning, when help from the Department of Natural Resources and Spokane Valley Fire Department arrived. The fire line they dug held; Hansen only lost a split-rail fence on his five acres.

“We kind of saved a couple other houses, too. If it dropped over the hill and came this way, we all would have been lost,” he said.

Spokane Valley fire Chief Mike Thompson said July 10, 2008, started with DNR crews running all over the region fighting fires. It was a red flag day, one of high winds and low humidity, highlighted by a three-alarm fire in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood.

In fact, Spokane officials called Thompson to help relieve their city crews, he said.

“When the Valley View fire broke out, we told them we couldn’t send them any resources and they understood,” Thompson said.

The Valley View fire spread faster than officials could warn neighbors.

“Limited access was our biggest problem. We had people up on Park Road trying to evacuate,” he said.

A deputy and a fire prevention unit went up Park Road to scout the fire. They found about 30 residents and pets trying to evacuate and quickly were surrounded by flames.

“They had them huddle in a green space, which was an old baseball field, until the fire went past,” Thompson said. The deputy and fire prevention unit “were instrumental in helping those people. Otherwise, they could have been seriously hurt.”

The fire expanded and moved west, but DNR crews on bulldozers cut a fire line up the mountain to protect the Dishman Hills Natural Area and the nearby Ponderosa neighborhood, he said.

Lessons taken to heart

In the 12 months since the fire, residents and emergency responders have considered its lessons.

Around the neighborhoods touched by the Valley View fire, more people have cast an eye toward fire-resistant landscaping.

“I think a lot of the homeowners took precautions after the fire and did a fair amount of fuels removal in there,” said Loren Torgerson, manager of DNR’s seven-county Northeast Region. “Folks are aware now about defensible space around their homes and we have been working with them to improve that.”

Torgerson and Thompson both said post-fire reports identified better communication as a key lesson to be learned.

Locally, Thompson said sheriff’s officials will be part of the fire incident command team to improve the information going to deputies and firefighters, who couldn’t communicate with one another during the initial evacuation.

Torgerson said state officials are working to make sure local fire crews know what resources are available from the state and where those resources are at all times.

The local fire crews “responded very well. We couldn’t do it without them,” Torgerson said. “We even had folks from Idaho respond. Years and years ago, that kind of coordination and cooperation wasn’t there. It just shows that we are getting better and better responding to these incidents.”


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