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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Class action suit alleges School fire blame

A class action lawsuit was filed Thursday alleging that a nonprofit electric cooperative and a tree-removal company should have prevented Washington’s largest wildfire of 2005.

The School fire started Aug. 5 south of Pomeroy, Wash., and eventually consumed 109 residences and about 50,000 acres.

The suit says that the blaze started when a 52-foot tree fell on an electric line owned by the Columbia Rural Electric Association. The dead tree was an obvious danger in the extremely dry conditions and could have been seen from a paved road, said Darrell W. Scott, the attorney who filed the claim.

“It should have been seen. It should have been removed,” Scott said. “The fire never should have happened.”

John Parker, the association’s interim chief executive officer, said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Columbia Rural was formed in 1939 and serves about 4,000 customers in Columbia and Walla Walla counties in Washington and Umatilla County in Oregon, Parker said.

Also named in the suit is Asplundh Tree Expert Co., headquartered in Pennsylvania. Scott said Asplundh had a contract with Columbia Rural to maintain vegetation near the association’s lines.

The suit, which was filed in federal court in Spokane, was pursued by Keller Allen, an attorney who farms on land in Columbia County. He lost about 25 acres of timber in the fire.

If a judge agrees to move ahead with the case as a class action, people who lost property in the blaze will be contacted by mail and can opt out of the lawsuit, Scott said.

Allen said he believes most people who lost property will decide to remain part of the class action if the case goes forward.

“It’s not like this is a lightning strike,” Allen said.

Damages caused by the fire likely exceeded $5 million, Scott said.

Scott represented hundreds of Spokane County residents in a class action lawsuit resulting from a firestorm in October 1991 in which a series of blazes killed a pregnant woman and burned 114 homes. In that case, residents alleged that Inland Power & Light and Washington Water Power Co., now Avista, failed to properly maintain brush near power lines.

In 1997, Inland agreed to settle the firestorm claims for $1 million, and Washington Water agreed to pay $10.3 million. All but about $1 million was paid by the utilities’ insurance companies.