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

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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.

4 thoughts on “Burlington Northern railroad settles million dollar lawsuit for burning homes”

  1. Awww Lefty

    Don’t be a hater…..there probably is no connection to Rx burns and rail starts (track gang or locomotive)

    Probably a joke to you in comparisons…….I get it

    Probably not so much a joke as seen by landowners and lawyers this day in age.

    Awww Lefty ….keep an open mind to negligence …..in ANY arena

    Especially to the risk management folks, lawyers, and insurance companies that will have definitely something to say in the future….if not already!!!!

  2. I see your point,Bill

    But for every new law enacted, five old 1890 blue laws need to come off the books

    Granted theState of WA needs to rewrite the laws and also proactively work with BNSF in the fuels reduction in and near the tracks. Been being done in other parts of the nation for years…..

    BNSF has a mission to move freight and the loss of millions per day could plant a lot of trees, build some new homes burned by the fire etc

    Granted the long hard fight of the folks in settlements of property damages.

    The State Foresters of the present and past have a JOB to do…..again in their purvey…….it is called collaboration and teamwork WITH. The BNSF

    Sure the track MX folks were negligent….but if there is a fuel load along the railway and along State property in or near the railway. Then the famous WA State Forestry world is equally complicit in the problem of fuels reduction and maybe complicit in the damages related to the fire.

    BNSF has a long standing history of moving freight to include timber and finished lumber and probably equally a long history of rail starts.

    But maybe if we write MORE laws for negligence for industry…..then the same stringent laws ought to be rewritten for Rx burns that have some how mysteriously have gone off reservation the last few years due to lack of reading the weather and READING Ag Handbook 360, Fire Weather.

    Writing more laws without eliminating unnecessary or antique laws that are currently on the books, is not going to solve the negligence in either arena…..

    Negligence in the RX burn world is just as serious as a track MX gang touching one off. Seems to me, some RX burns in the last 5 years could have the equivalent damages as those 200 wildfires sparked by rail operations!

    1. The WA-DNR (labeled “the famous WA state forestry” above ?) is “complicit in the problem of fuels reduction and maybe complicit in the damages related to the fire”? Not applicable to this situation at all – the fire area is seasonal grass – and beyond putting a dozer or mow line along every rail line in the state, nothing the DNR did or could have done changed the fact that homes were burned on the Broughton Fire.

      Also, this isn’t talking about new legislation or “writing new laws” – just amending the law that is already “in the books”.


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