The crime: 52,000 acres of torched forest in southeastern Washington, plus 215 buildings.
The cause: a dead 52-foot-tall ponderosa pine that blew over onto a power line, causing sparks to shower down on dry grasses and brush.
Cost to fight the blaze: $15 million, which doesn’t include the value of the lost timber and structures.
The August fire, which became known as the School fire, was caused by the local power cooperative’s failure to cut down the dead tree, according to results of a six-month state and federal investigation. Now, the state Department of Natural Resources wants to be reimbursed $3.7 million by the Columbia Rural Electric Association.
“It’s our duty to recover the suppression costs of fires like this one,” said state Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland in a statement Monday.
The U.S. Forest Service also is reviewing the cause of the School fire for possible reimbursement, though the agency has not decided if it will seek repayment, said Joani Bosworth, spokeswoman for the Umatilla National Forest.
The power cooperative disputes the findings of the investigation and says the dead tree was 10 feet or more outside the 20-foot-wide easement it is required to keep clear below power lines, said John Parker, chief financial officer of the Columbia Rural Electric Association in Dayton, Wash.
“We are going to vigorously defend ourselves against this claim,” Parker said. “We think the DNR and the Forest Service have their behinds hanging out quite a ways about how they fought or didn’t fight this fire.”
Crews from the utility were notified 35 minutes after the fire had been reported. When they arrived, they saw four firetrucks. “Nobody was doing anything,” Parker said.
The utility also faces a class action by private landowners affected by the fire, which burned for two weeks in the Blue Mountain foothills near Pomeroy, Wash., and was the state’s largest natural disaster last year. Asplundh Tree Expert Co. had a contract with Columbia REA to maintain vegetation near the association’s lines and also is named in the lawsuit.
The state and federal investigation into the cause of the blaze narrowed in on the ponderosa pine. An arboreal forensic pathologist – a tree crime coroner – was brought in to gather evidence, said Dennis Heryford, chief fire investigator for the Washington DNR. The expert determined the tree was killed by a beetle infestation four to seven years before the fire. It stood 17 feet from the center of the power line easement.
“It was on the outer edge” of the easement, Heryford said, adding, “It should have been noticed.”
At 3:33 p.m. Aug. 5, a burst of wind knocked the dead tree onto the lines. Witnesses at nearby Camp Wooten told investigators they heard a pop from the arcing 14,400-volt lines, according to the investigation.
Crews from the power co-op cleared away pieces of the tree hours after the fire started, but enough remained to serve as evidence, Heryford said. The case has been forwarded to the state attorney general.
Columbia Rural Electric Association’s own investigation concluded the tree had only been dead a year or two, said Parker, the association’s chief financial officer.
The co-op clears trees and brush from below lines on a three-year cycle.
“From a practical standpoint that’s always been a problem, at least on DNR land. They really don’t like us cutting trees,” Parker said.