Two separate lawsuits filed Tuesday afternoon blame a faulty Inland Power and Light Company outdoor light for sparking the Gray fire, which devastated the Medical Lake community last month.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of 44 residents alleges the fire started on private property near the 12800 block of South Gray Road, where eyewitnesses had complained months before that an outdoor light owned by Inland Power was flickering and not working correctly.
Inland Power then repaired or replaced the light, according to the lawsuit. Another eyewitness was standing near the light shortly after the fire started and reported seeing “sparks or molten/burning material” coming from the light and its attached wiring.
A second lawsuit filed Tuesday with one named plaintiff more generally alleged that Inland Power caused the fire.
The fire Aug. 18 destroyed 240 homes and killed 86-year-old Carl Grub.
The Department of Natural Resources is conducting its own investigation into the cause of the fire. The results of the investigation likely won’t be available for months, the state agency said last week. The witness who saw sparks coming from the light provided statements to DNR.
“At this point, an active investigation is still underway and until the results of that are finalized, we can’t speculate at this point,” said Andy Barth, community relations officer for Inland Power.
The Spokane-based electric cooperative has hired a firm to do an independent investigation, Barth said. Inland Power is the state’s largest power cooperative, established in 1937 to provide electricity to rural areas.
Today, it has about 46,000 customers in 13 counties across Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
Spokane attorney John Allison filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 44 area residents. He’s working with Shawn Caine and Christopher Sieglock, two California attorneys who also have experience in wildfire litigation.
Filing the lawsuit now, before DNR’s investigation is completed, gives victims of the fire a seat at the table and a chance to examine evidence, Allison said.
Allison cited multiple witnesses who reported issues with the outdoor light that illuminated the property’s central yard area between a residential home and outbuildings. According to county records, the property on both sides of the 12800 of South Gray Road is owned by the Jensen Memorial Youth Ranch, which was co-founded by Grub, who died miles away in Medical Lake where he lived.
The light was on top of a wooden pole energized by wires running from a nearby power pole and transformer owned and operated by Inland Power, according to the lawsuit. The fire started approximately 20 to 25 yards from the light, according to the lawsuit.
The light is separate from the electricity meter that tracks power provided to buildings on the property, Allison said.
The lawsuit argues that Inland Power had a duty to properly care for the light and light pole, and that the sparks coming from the pole “would not occur in the absence of negligence.”
The residents asked for property and economic damages, along with compensation for emotional distress. Additional residents can still be added to the suit, Allison noted.
Another lawsuit was filed on behalf of Akir Fowlkes by Singleton Schreiber, a law firm with offices throughout the western U.S.
That suit makes a similar allegation that Inland Power’s “utility infrastructure” caused sparks to ignite surrounding vegetation.
“Inland Power was very aware as a utility company that Washington is deemed a high wildfire risk area, and they should have used this knowledge to properly protect their clients and the residents of Spokane County,” Gerald Singleton, managing partner of Singleton Schreiber, wrote in a statement. “Because of Inland Power & Light’s negligence, a life was lost, other lives were completely upended, and this community will never be the same.”
Inland Power knew that there was a red flag warning in the region the day of the fire and should have “exercised an increased level of care” because of the increased fire danger, the suit says.
Area residents have requested that powerlines be moved underground, which the lawsuit argues would be safer.
Inland Power has already been involved in significant litigation related to the Firestorm in 1991, paying out about $11.3 million with Avista Utilities to victims, and should therefore be well aware of the risk, the lawsuit argued.
The second lawsuit also argues Inland Power was at fault for the fire due to negligence.