Homeowners question fire response as state seeks more firefighting money

Besides seeking more money for fire prevention, state officials also want the Legislature to boost funding for fighting wildfires.

That request could be controversial, though, as some state lawmakers and Central Washington property owners are questioning how well the state uses the firefighting resources it already has.

The Department of Natural Resources is asking for about $4.5 million in the next two years to staff 10 additional fire engines, boost air support and improve coordination among various firefighting agencies.

DNR officials say that unusually dry weather coupled with thousands of lightning strikes made the 2014 fire season the worst in state history, burning more than 410,000 acres.

State forester Aaron Everett said that the department simply didn’t have the firefighting capabilities to respond to dozens of fires starting simultaneously throughout the state.

“There were conditions over the summer where the resources we had available to us were stressed to the limit and beyond,” Everett said.

But several Okanogan County residents allege that DNR could have done more to prevent last summer’s fires from spreading, even with the money it had available.

As of late December, 65 property owners and two businesses had filed tort claims alleging that DNR was negligent in fighting the Carlton Complex fire, which burned more than 256,000 acres in Okanogan and Chelan counties in July and August. The property owners claimed DNR is liable for at least $9.6 million in property damage, with additional damages yet to be determined.

Alex Thomason, a lawyer for dozens of the claimants, alleges on his law office website that DNR “let the fires burn” rather than stopping them when they were smaller and more manageable.

“Why did the DNR ignore fires for days, abandon contained fires, watch fire consume homes, literally play card games while land owners begged for help?” Thomason’s website asks.

The state has already denied the 65 property owners’ claims.

One denial letter from the state Attorney General’s Office says DNR is not liable for damage caused by a wildfire while the agency is working to suppress it.

“Since your claim requests damages based upon DNR’s actions in suppressing and preventing the wildfire, DNR is not liable for any damages incurred,” the Attorney General’s office wrote in a Nov. 12 letter rejecting a homeowner’s claim.

Thomason told Spokane TV news station KREM that he and his clients plan to pursue a lawsuit against the state.

Several state lawmakers want the Legislature to explore whether DNR could have fought the 2014 fires more efficiently. The Legislature reconvenes for a 105-day session Jan. 12.

Sen. Kirk Pearson, a Republican from Monroe who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee, said he plans to hold hearings in 2015 “scrutinizing DNR’s fire response.”

“Right now, there are still concerns out there,” Pearson said. “The reason for these hearings is just to get to the bottom of everything and to make sure we’re doing everything in the best possible way.”

State Rep. Brian Blake, who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said he also plans to hold work sessions in his committee evaluating how state agencies managed last year’s fires.

“Before we just throw money at the situation, we are going to have to ask, Are we spending the dollars we are spending wisely?” said Blake, D-Aberdeen. “I don’t want to start with more money. I want to start with that question.”

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