A group of Malden and Pine City residents is suing Avista Utilities for property damage and emotional distress stemming from a wildfire that razed much of their towns in northern Whitman County in 2020.
The lawsuit, filed in Spokane County Superior Court on Wednesday, comes nearly a year after a state Department of Natural Resources report found that a tree branch fell into Avista power lines, igniting the blaze. The tree was diseased and damaged, causing a forest pathologist to find a “closer inspection was warranted,” according to the DNR report.
“This was time bomb waiting to go off,” John Allison, a local civil attorney involved in the case, said of the tree.
Avista has continued to posit that the primary cause of the wildfire was “extreme high winds.”
In a statement Wednesday, the company said it had not seen or been made aware of a lawsuit but would participate and cooperate in any legal process related to the topic.
Called the Babb Road Fire, flames spread quickly through fields and treed areas before roaring into the towns of Malden and Pine City. About 80% of the homes burned.
No one died, but most homeowners did not carry insurance for such a catastrophe.
More than 40 Malden and Pine City residents brought the lawsuit. Allison is representing them along with Shawn Caine, who handles wildland fire litigation nationwide.
Caine, with Pacific Fire Attorneys in California, tried his first wildland fire case in 1996 and has recovered over $30 billion for his clients, according to his website. He is currently part of a team working on the 2019 Kincade Fire lawsuit against PG&E .
The Malden fire started during a period of prime wildfire conditions, which have become more common in the Pacific Northwest in recent years, Caine said.
“We expect utilities such as Avista to make sure that these fires aren’t ignited by their power lines,” Caine said. “Had proper attention been deployed, we believe we wouldn’t be here today.”
The suit alleges that Avista failed to conduct reasonable, prompt, proper and frequent inspections of their power lines and the surrounding vegetation.
When the fire started, the wind in the area was 18 mph with gusts up to 34 mph, speeds the lawsuit alleges were not out of the normal range for the region, counter to Avista’s claims an extreme weather event caused the fire.
“We also feel that the claim that this was an event that occurred because of extraordinary unprecedented winds simply does not fit with the evidence,” Caine said.
Caine also noted that the tree was out in the open and the “abnormal” architecture of the tree was plainly visible. DNR investigators found evidence of prior cutting of branches on the tree, Caine added, but it’s unclear who did said cutting.
“It grew potentially for decades as a defective tree,” Caine said.
The tree was out of the right-of-way of Avista’s power lines, the company said. The DNR report confirmed the base of the tree was out of the right of way, but the branch that fell would have extended into the right of way.
“To date, Avista has not found any evidence and does not believe that the fires were caused by any deficiencies in its equipment, maintenance activities or vegetation management practices,” Avista said in a statement.
The attorneys are waiting to learn more about Avista’s vegetation management practices. Allison said utility companies are required to regularly schedule maintenance and safety evaluations of all their power lines.
“They can’t really say, well, we have so many trees how can we know which ones are defective?” Allison said.
Avista acknowledged what a devastating loss the fire caused to the community and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to recovery efforts.
“Since the initial restoration efforts began immediately following the fire, Avista has served as a steady supporter, facilitating connections, helping to build capacity, convening people and organizations and much more that has contributed to the community’s ability to access funding and move toward rebuilding in tangible ways,” the company said.
The fire was a “catastrophic event” that destroyed many people’s livelihoods, homes and the legacies they had built, Caine said.
The suit did not set a specific monetary request for damages to property and emotional distress, instead leaving the amount to be proven in trial.
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