Burlington Northern railroad settles million dollar lawsuit for burning homes

Burlington Northern Santa Fe

File photo of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train

Railroads in the state of Washington get away with starting fires along their tracks because according to Joe Shramek, the Resource Protection Manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, they can’t take action against a railroad for starting a fire unless they can prove that: :

…the railroad acted deliberately, intentionally, and recklessly.

As we wrote in 2009 about the sorry state of affairs in Washington, that is a ridiculously high standard. In most states and on federal land, a deliberately-set fire is one thing, arson, and a fire that is unintentional but results from negligence is treated as a separate violation of the law.  If the State of Washington can’t prosecute someone for negligently allowing a fire to start and/or burn public or private land, they need to amend their law.

King 5 in Seattle has been reporting on this for years, and identified over 200 fires in a 10-year period that were started by railroads in Washington. While the criminal system is sitting on their hands as railroads start fires in the state, three families used the civil system to sue the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad for starting a fire in 2007 that burned their homes. King 5 said the railroad is expected to pay a million dollar settlement when the details are finalized later this week in the lawsuit that was filed nearly five years ago.

Below is an excerpt from King 5:

A BNSF contractor was performing track maintenance, called grinding, in Skamania County in August of 2007. The grinding machine spews sparks and embers and it reportedly triggered several spot fires on the hot and windy August day.

In spite of this, the crew kept grinding and triggered a major fire near Broughton Mill in Skamania County. Video shows the flames racing up the Columbia River Gorge and destroying homes in the White Salmon area.

In 2009, the KING 5 Investigators identified the Broughton Mill fire as one of more than 200 wildfires sparked by railroad operations in Washington State in the previous 10 years. Critics said that some of these fires, like Broughton Mill, were preventable. Local cities and jurisdictions complained that they could not prevent hazardous railroading operations because the railroads are regulated by federal law.

The attorney for the three victims in the lawsuit declined to talk about the specifics of the settlement. But he did say his clients were glad to be at the end of a “…long, hard fight.”

“I’m hopeful that the railroads will abide by common sense and not do grinding or other dangerous railroad operations when the fire season is high,” said Spokane attorney Richard Eymann.

More information on Wildfire Today: Railroad-caused fires in Michigan and Washington – two different approaches


Railroad pays $3.3 million to settle wildfire suit

Grayling fire

The 2008 Grayling fire was one of a few that were capable of jumping a 4-lane highway and median. This photo shows the fire as it spread toward Grayling after it jumped across I-75. DNR photo.

In a story that Wildfire Today has been following since February, 2010, a railroad company in Michigan has agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle a suit filed by a landowner over damage caused by a 2008 wildfire.  This comes after the company, Lake State Railway in Michigan, pleaded no contest on January 2, 2011 to criminal charges of operating a locomotive without a spark arrestor and was ordered to pay $294,752 in restitution and a $1,000 fine after their railroad engine started the fire that burned 1,300 acres of forest, several homes, and other buildings near Grayling, Michigan. The same locomotive engine was suspected of starting 11 other fires in Alpena, Michigan on April 5, 2010.

On September 17, 2010 the Grayling Game Club filed a civil suit against the railroad. During the fire in 2008, 500 acres of the club’s property burned, in addition to several cabins. Michigan law allows for the club to recover triple the value of the property destroyed, which was estimated to be over $1 million. The club was represented by Southfield, Michigan attorney Paul F. Doherty. Mr. Doherty told Wildfire Today that Lake State Railway paid $3.3 million to settle the claims of the Game Club and two members who lost cabins in the fire.

Often, railroad companies get away with starting wildfires. Few are investigated, and even fewer result in settlements or prosecution.


Wildfire litigation

GavelPower company and contractors agree to pay nearly $30M for fires

Federal prosecutors in California have reached agreements with a power company and two tree-trimming contractors over two fires in 2004. One burned 7,700 acres in the Eldorado National Forest and the other burned 3,300 acres in the Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests. Federal officials said the fires were caused by power lines brought down by falling trees.

Western Environmental Consultants Inc. will pay $11.4 million to cover damage from the fire in the Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests. Davey Tree Surgery Co. will pay $12 million for its role in the in the Eldorado National Forest fire. Pacific Gas and Electric Company has agreed to pay $6.1 million.

These are not the largest settlements in California for starting fires. In 2008 the Union Pacific Railroad Company agreed to pay $102 million for starting a fire north of Sacramento in 2000 that burned 52,000 acres of the Lassen and Plumas national forests. Sparks from welders repairing tracks caused the Storrie Fire on August 17, 2000, in Plumas County.

The U. S. Department of Justice and the state of California’s CalFire have been very successful with their Fire Recovery Litigation Teams, assigned to investigate and prosecute individuals and companies who start wildland fires.

Wisconsin Supreme Court awards double damages for 2003 fire

Former Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox and 18 other plaintiffs were awarded double the $568,422 that was the result of a 2006 court decision over damages from a 2003 fire started by a negligent camper. The award was handed down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, five members of which served on the Court with former Justice Wilcox.


Followup on fire near Havre, Montana – Calf gets a ride in command vehicle

Milk River fire Havre Montana

Milk River fire. Photo by Blaine County Sheriff Glenn Huestis

Mapping by the Bureau of Land Management revealed that Tuesday’s wildfire between Havre (map) and Chinook, Montana that Wildfire Today told you about yesterday stretched for nine miles along the Milk River Valley and blackened 12,000 acres. The 175 firefighters battled 50 mph winds that gusted up to 70.

The cause has not been officially determined but the fire started along the BNSF Railway Company right-of-way in an area where a BNSF crew worked on Tuesday.

Here are some excerpts from an article in the Great Falls Tribune:

“There was one time when the fire was flanking us, and we came across a calf lying in a bunch of weeds where her mom had put her,” [Blaine County Volunteer Fire Department Chief Kraig] Hansen said. “We stopped, and I threw the calf in the command vehicle and then we got out of there. We let the fire pass and then I let the calf out.”


In the end, fire crews from a nearly 130-mile radius stopped the blaze. But while the firefighting effort on the Milk River fire was clearly a success, Hansen and [Havre Fire Department Chief Dave] Sheppard’s enthusiasm was tempered by concern about the months ahead.

“We’re not supposed to have grassfires like this in March,” Sheppard said. “We typically don’t see these types of fires until May or June. It’s tinder dry out there. It’s like August fuels right now. If we don’t get some moisture, it’s going to be a long summer.”



Railroad-caused wildfire in Australia spreads to factory. Air tanker and helicopters help suppress.

Two fires caused by a railroad near Adelaide, Australia burned together and spread to a pallet factory. The radient heat as the factory burned was so intense that fire crews could not get close enough to get water streams onto the seat of the blaze, until an air tanker and helicopters cooled it down.

One video is here, but Firegeezer has the whole story with photos and more videos. Check it out.


Railroad locomotive causes fire near ammo plant

McAlester railroad locomotive fire

McAlester Army Ammunition Plant firefighters Doyle Mitchell, left, and Spec. Amanda Lainberger spray water on a stockpile of railroad ties during a grass fire Monday at the ammunition plant. The fire was caused by an operating locomotive. There were no fatalities or injuries.

A railroad locomotive started a fire on the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in southeast Oklahoma on Monday which spread into a stockpile of railroad ties. The 20-acre fire extended along one mile of railroad track.

Here is an excerpt from a news release:

…There were no injuries or fatalities. The fire was declared contained at 6 p.m. on Monday but was still smoldering this morning and is being monitored by the McAAP fire agency.

McAAP has about 210 miles of railroad tracks.

Twenty McAAP firefighters, including four who were called back to duty, engaged the blaze using water and foam from six wildfire units and two pumper trucks. Several other independent fires broke out which were quickly contained.

Five buildings and at least six box cars were threatened by the grass fire. A single 500-square foot building already scheduled for demolition caught on fire but was extinguished. The coordinated effort of MCAAP’s fire department, railroad crews and roads and grounds personnel prevented the fire from causing any further damage. The fire was contained and presented no danger to the plant’s personnel and the communities surrounding the installation.