Railroad-caused fires in Michigan and Washington – two different approaches

King 5 news in Seattle continues to investigate and expose the negligence of the railroad companies, especially Burlington Northern Santa Fe, in regards to starting hundreds of wildfires along their tracks in the state of Washington. They first reported on this in November, 2009.  Over a 10-year period, railroads, mostly Burlington Northern Santa Fe, were listed as the cause for 234 fires. One person was killed when he was overrun by one of the fires as he operated a combine. Several people have lost their homes. However the company has NEVER been cited for causing any of the fires.

This is negligence squared, in that the railroad was negligent for starting the fires, and the state, including Joe Shramek, the Resource Protection Manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, was negligent for not prosecuting the railroad for even one of the 234 fires.

The state of Michigan has a very different philosophy about holding railroads accountable for starting fires. There, as we reported in February, the Department of Natural Resources investigates fires and when appropriate turns over their evidence to the Attorney General for prosecution. Lake State Railway is facing criminal charges for allegedly starting a 2008 fire that torched some 1,300 acres of forest, several homes and other buildings in Grayling. And in a more recent example, when a train was suspected of starting several fires in Alpena, Michigan on April 5, 2010, Paul Kollmeyer, a Department of Natural Resources and Environment Wildfire Prevention Specialist conducted a large part of the investigation and submitted a report to the AG’s office within a week of the fires occurring.

Washington’s Department of Natural Resources needs to stop sitting on its hands. But thankfully the Burlington Northern Santa Fe is taking some measures to prevent future fires caused by their trains.

Wildfire Today commends King 5 for exposing the negligence of the railroads and the State government in Washington, and we also commend the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment for holding accountable the people and companies responsible for starting fires.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.