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Shawn Vestal: Wildfire lawsuit claims sound far-fetched but are hard to dismiss

Is the state to blame for the wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes in north-central Washington last summer?

Did the bureaucrats who run the Department of Natural Resources purposely let fires burn until they were beyond control, destroying homes and communities, in the hopes of bolstering their budgets? Were the ruinous effects of these fires – characterized as the worst in the state’s history – actually foreseeable, preventable consequences of a decision to keep state firefighters on the sidelines, literally watching as flames spread?

The state says no, and it sounds, on its face, too conspiratorial for prime time. But those questions – which form the backbone of a lawsuit that is headed for court – are harder to dismiss than they should be.

In mid-July, four lightning strikes started four fires in the Methow Valley. Within three days, the fires merged and turned into the largest wildfire in state history, burning more than 256,000 acres and costing the state $60 million to fight. Around 300 homes were destroyed, including the town of Pateros. Damage to livestock and agricultural land was devastating.

From the moment the fires started burning, people in the area began complaining about unresponsive DNR crews. Crews sat and watched as community volunteers fought home fires in vain, homeowners claimed. Volunteers said they were sent away by DNR personnel, who then let the fires burn. According to the attorney preparing the case, Alex Thomason, one homeowner asked a card-playing DNR crew for help, without success.

It sounds far-fetched. Thomason said that was his initial thought, too. A former prosecutor in Seattle and a one-time contestant on Donald Trump’s reality show, “The Apprentice,” Thomason lives in Pateros. After the fires, he organized a generator drive and delivered them to his neighbors.

“In the process, people began telling me their stories,” he said.

He would hear one story and think, “That can’t be right,” and then he’d hear another one. Thomason says he has now interviewed around 50 witnesses with firsthand accounts of DNR sitting sidelined in the first crucial hours – before the four separate lightning strikes conflated into one enormous wildfire.

“I kept hearing story after story after story after story,” Thomason said.

Thomason said he has interviewed Forest Service smokejumpers who were turned away from the fire. He said he has interviewed former DNR firefighters who have told him it was “absolutely inexcusable” that the fire was allowed to grow so big, and who told him that the state’s policy on lightning strikes is to let them burn until they burn out or get big enough to draw more resources.

“The only ones saying it was an act of God are the bureaucrats,” Thomason told the Capitol Press last month. “Everyone else believes it was a disaster that didn’t have to happen, that it was caused by DNR not letting people fight the fire.

“We think there is evidence that will show DNR stood to benefit financially (in government resources) from letting these fires grow. They just got bigger than they wanted them to.”

DNR denies these allegations, describing its firefighters as hardworking and courageous, and saying they prevented casualties in a fire that was “unprecedented.” The head of the agency, Peter Goldmark, who is from rural Okanogan County himself, has said the agency was strapped for resources to fight the fires. He told KREM-2 News last year, “There are never, and I underline never, instances where DNR lets a fire burn, never.”

He also said, “Whether or not DNR crews didn’t participate when they should have, I doubt very much. Because we have this ethic where we always try our utmost,” said Goldmark.

In October, 65 property owners filed claims with the state for damages of $15 million. Most of those were for the loss of homes, though around 10 involved the death of livestock, Thomason has said. The state denied the claims, and now Thomason said the homeowners will be filing suit. There will also be more of them, he says – more than 150 people are part of the lawsuit, seeking damages of more than $50 million.

These claims – so tough to believe, but so hard to ignore – could well be put to the test in court, where more evidence would be brought to bear, and where state officials would be forced to answer in more depth and detail the allegations against them.

Thomason said the lawsuit, in addition to getting homeowners paid for damages he considers preventable, aims to force the state to start aggressively putting out small fires rather than taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We want the policy in Washington to change and we want the DNR to pay for the damage they caused by letting these fires burn,” he said. “Just as any property owner would.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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