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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Law firm investigating Gray fire as residents realize total reimbursement unlikely

A classic Ford pickup destroyed by the Gray fire off of South Medical Lake Road is photographed on Aug. 22 near Medical Lake.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Three weeks after the Gray fire burned 240 homes in Medical Lake and the surrounding area, lawyers are conducting their own investigation into what started the blaze and allege it may have involved electrical lines and other equipment.

Fire investigators haven’t shared any information about their investigation publicly. Avista Utilities and Inland Power & Light both serve the Medical Lake area.

A group of people who lost their homes in the Gray fire gathered Thursday night to hear from attorneys on the potential to pursue damages once the cause of the fire is determined.

“We’ve been contacted by homeowners who are going through the insurance process, and some of them are already learning that they are not going to have enough insurance to cover their losses, which is typical,” said local attorney John Allison.

Allison is among lawyers who have pursued litigation following area wildfires and is currently representing people who lost their homes in the Babb Road fire, which burned the community of Malden. He is working with California-based attorneys Shawn Caine and Christopher Sieglock to pursue damages against Avista on that fire.

As people are discovering the limitations of insurance and government programs, they are “wondering how they’ll be compensated for those losses,” Allison said.

The cause of the Gray fire remains under investigation by the Washington state Department of Natural Resources.

“Our investigation is continuing, and of course we’re giving great deference to DNR, who are great investigators,” Allison said.

In a letter to those affected by the fire, Allison’s team wrote that their preliminary investigation showed the fire “may have involved electrical lines and other equipment.”

In the case of the Babb Road fire, which decimated the towns of Malden and Pine City in 2020, the investigation report was not completed until April 2021, seven months after the fire.

That investigation alleged Avista Utilities should have done a closer inspection of a tree branch that was close to a power line, which is suspected of ultimately starting the fire.

A trial in that case to determine liability is currently scheduled for May.

Allison said the timeline of the Malden investigation wasn’t abnormal in his experience and that his team will continue collecting information until a determination is made.

“It’s a very thorough investigation, and it needs to be,” Allison said. “This starts with an investigation, and we don’t proceed without sufficient information.”

If a responsible party is found, that’s when Allison’s team can step in and pursue litigation. The team takes on the risk of pursuing the litigation and is only compensated if they win.

“If we determine that there’s a responsible party, our intention is to help those homeowners seek justice and compensation,” Allison said.

A loss estimate has not been assigned to either the Gray fire or the Oregon Road fire in northern Spokane County near Elk, which burned 126 homes.

The Oregon Road fire has been determined to be human-caused. It was ignited about 4 miles northeast of Elk and investigators are continuing their search for exactly how it started.

The fires started Friday, Aug. 18, amid red-flag conditions as winds whipped the region after several days of temperatures topping 100 degrees.

The financial losses from the fires could be staggering. And while insurance will help, the mailer to residents warned that coverage normally does not fully reimburse people for rebuilding homes and outbuildings, replacing lost landscaping and plants, the value of lost timber, damage to personal property and belongings, living expenses due to evacuation and injuries.

Lawsuits against power companies in large wildfires have become increasingly common in recent years. Caine has been pursuing wildfire cases since 1996. He most recently was the co-lead council in the North Bay Fire Litigation against power giant PG&E, and in litigation for the Thomas and Woolsey fires against Southern California Edison.

Lawyers have already sent experts to Maui to look into utility power lines as the possible source of ignition for the devastating wildfires there.