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No criminal charges in Valley View blaze

Thu., June 4, 2009, midnight

Lawsuits pending for damage

No criminal charges will be filed against a woman and teenage boy blamed for a massive fire last summer that destroyed 11 homes and cost $3.5 million to fight.

Tracy Berg, a surgeon at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, and a 16-year-old friend of her son face lawsuits related to the July 10 Valley View fire. The state Department of Natural Resources said the 1,000-acre blaze began with a fire Berg allowed the boy to start three days earlier in a tree stump.

“I’m more concerned with the rights and responsibilities of the prospective potential plaintiffs and defendants in the case than a $180 ticket,” Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Brian O’Brien said Wednesday. “There’s millions of dollars at stake in civil litigation.”

Berg still owes the state nearly $775,000 for the cost of fighting the fire. Her lawyer, Tammy L. Williams, of Seattle, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The boy’s lawyer, Tim Cronin, said questions remain about the origin of the fire and commended the decision not to press charges.

“If his actions do turn out to be related to the fire he feels very bad because he did everything he could to put the fire out and thought it was out,” Cronin said in a written statement.

Four lawsuits have been filed over the fire, which a DNR investigation determined began in a stump the Bergs had used as a fire pit since at least 1995. The boy doused the fire with a hose, but tree roots smoldered for days before high winds whipped up the massive wildfire that forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

Berg learned after the fire that the stump was on Spokane architect Glen Cloninger’s undeveloped property. Cloninger filed the first lawsuit against Berg. Lawsuits from more than 20 homeowners and Avista Utilities followed.

Williams has been notified of at least 12 additional claims against Berg, she wrote in a court document filed April 10.

Possible charges against Berg and the boy included burning without a permit, a misdemeanor. But while the fire was illegal under a state-issued burn ban, no one seemed to know of the ban locally, O’Brien said.

“We certainly didn’t know about it,” said Bill Clifford, spokesman for the Spokane Valley Fire Department.

O’Brien consulted with the state DNR and local fire agencies before making his decisions, he said.

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