DNR sued over failure to suppress fire that became the Carlton Complex

Three landowners are suing the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, accusing the agency of negligence in not initially putting out the Golden Hike Fire that later merged with three others to become the Carlton Complex. The fire developed into the largest in the recorded history of the state, burning 256,108 acres and approximately 300 homes in July, 2014 in and around the towns of Pateros and Malott.

gavelThe suit contends that the DNR did not respond promptly to the fire, “abandoned fire lines early in the evening [on the first day] and did not return until morning”, and prevented local volunteers and residents from fighting the fire.

The three landowners are David Schulz, a former Okanogan County commissioner and 45-year firefighting veteran, his wife Deannis Schulz, and John Clees, a rancher. They are asking for damages to be determined at the trial, attorney’s fees, punitive damages, and treble damages under RCW 64.12.030.

Their attorney, Alex Thomason, represents more than other 200 clients who also lost their homes and property. If this suit is successful it could open the door to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

A similar case came after the 1985 Barker Mountain Fire that burned 25,000 acres in northeast Washington, including 5,000 acres of private land. The plaintiffs whose property was damaged argued that the DNR was negligent in fighting the fire since they withdrew the firefighters at the end of the first day to get rest and then reassigned them to one of many others that were burning at the same time. The case made it to the state Supreme Court where the judges upheld the decision that the state was indeed negligent, confirming the $2.6 million award to the plaintiffs. The dissenting opinion contended that the 30 mph wind that developed on the second day which caused the fire to again become active and spread far beyond control was an “act of God” and the DNR was not negligent.

Music video about Carlton Complex Fire of 2014

The song and the photos in the video are about the largest wildfire in the recorded history of Washington — the 256,108-acre Carlton Complex of Fires. In July, 2014 it burned approximately 300 homes in and around the towns of Pateros and Malott as well others in more rural areas.

The video is very well done, beautifully sung by Brittany Jean, and is quite moving.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim.

Washington DNR demotes their Resource Protection Manager

Below is an excerpt from an article at King5 in Washington state:

KING 5 News has learned that the [Washington] Department of Natural Resources has demoted the manager in charge of the controversial firefighting operations at this summer’s wildfires in Central Washington.

Albert Kassel’s removal as DNR’s Resource Protection manager “…reflects DNR’s current leadership needs within the agency,” spokesperson Sandra Kaiser said in a statement issued to KING 5 Friday.

DNR was roundly criticized for what Okanogan County leaders – and many citizens say – was a weak initial response to what became known as the Carlton Complex fires. Four fires merged into a firestorm that scorched more than a quarter million acres and destroyed 300 homes.

In its statement, DNR said that “(Kassel’s) change in position is not connected to any specific event or action.” Kaiser specifically denied that the demotion is due to Kassel’s handling of the Carlton Complex fires.

However, Kassel’s reassignment to a wildland fire investigator’s position will cost him $1,461 per month in salary. His monthly pay rate is now $6,205 per month…


A call for better preparedness for wildfires in Washington

Following the Carlton Complex of fires that burned 300 homes and 256,108 acres in north-central Washington this summer, there have been calls for better preparedness for future wildfires. Below is an excerpt from a December 7 article in The Olympian:

…The Department of Natural Resources, which [Peter] Goldmark oversees, operates the state’s largest on-call fire department, and it is also responsible for the regulation and control of forest practices, including wildfire prevention. It’s a shame the state Legislature has thwarted his efforts.

Goldmark has tried to upgrade preventive forest management practices to keep pace with forest growth and the long-term effects of climate change. Two years ago, the commissioner asked lawmakers to approve $20 million for restorative forest health programs, which he later pared down to $10 million. The Legislature gave him only $4 million.

That small amount didn’t go far and represents the worst sort of short-term thinking. With climatologists predicting continued drought and exceptional warming trends in Eastern Washington, the forest fire threat will increase. Lawmakers should approve his request this year.

The Legislature should also give Goldmark another $4.5 million to restore fire engine and helitack crews eliminated in recent budget cuts. Adding these resources would enable DNR to respond to wildfires like the Carlton blaze more quickly, minimizing the duration of the fire and the extent of property damage.

Goldmark asked for a paltry $2 million last year for this purpose, and lawmakers gave him nothing.

It’s expensive to suppress wildfires, and often represents a failure to maintain a healthy forest. But when fires do occur, it’s essential to have ample resources ready to curtail them quickly…

Wildfire briefing, November 28, 2014

Mail carrier stops wildfire

Bob Trujillo was delivering mail near Genesee, Colorado in August when he discovered a wildfire near a home. Since he had no cell phone service he went to a nearby house and asked the residents to call 911. While a woman at the house made the call, her husband joined Mr. Trujllo while he constructed a fire line around the fire.

A Sheriff’s deputy arrived and helped the men until the fire department arrived.

“When I arrived there was a lot of smoke but not much fire due to the line that Robert built around the fire,” the deputy wrote in his report. “The wind was blowing out of the South East at about 10 miles an hour with strong gusts.”

This week, Mr. Trujillo was honored with a Postmaster General’s “Hero’s Award”, Jefferson County Commissioners honored him with a Citizen’s Coin, and Foothills Fire Chief Brian Zoril presented him with a fireman’s helmet.

Washington state pays wealthy landowner following wildfire

A controversy is developing in the state of Washington after it was discovered that after the Carlton Complex of Fires that burned 300 homes and 256,108 acres, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) paid nearly $2 million to one of the wealthiest landowners in Okanogan County.

Below are some excerpts from an article at King5:

…The taxpayer funded payment was reimbursement to Gebbers Farms, owner of one of the largest fruit orchards in the world.

Gebbers was paid for equipment and personnel that it used to fight fire, mostly on its own privately-owned property.

DNR says the payment was appropriate, because Gebbers was able to launch a large scale assault on the fire in coordination with public agencies fighting the wildfire.

DNR regional manager Loren Torgerson said the so-called “fire control contract” is the same kind of arrangement the agency uses when hiring contractors to fight fires.

Records show Gebbers was reimbursed $209,000 for salaries for its orchard workers and managers for 19 days of firefighting. It was paid $680,000 for the use of heavy equipment. And $435,000 was paid for at least four helicopters that Gebbers leased.

There’s evidence that the Gebbers property fared much better than neighboring properties.

A satellite image taken in the days after the fire shows a large, circular scar of burned vegetation. In the middle is a green patch that is mostly Gebbers property.

One of the family’s friends also happens to be the man who runs the DNR – lands commissioner Peter Goldmark.

“I knew the late Danny Gebbers – yes,” Goldmark said when KING 5 asked about his association with the family.

Danny Gebbers was the elderly family patriarch who died after he suffered an injury in a fall during the Carlton Complex Fire.

Like the Gebbers, Goldmark is a ranch owner and one of the largest landowners in Okanogan County.

But he says his relationship with them, the political contributions they have made to his campaigns over the years, had no bearing on DNR’s decision to reimburse Gebbers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick and Carl.

Video describes the impacts of the Carlton Complex on the local residents

In July of this year four fires in north-central Washinton combined into what was called the Carlton Complex. By the time the fire was contained, 300 homes and 256,108 acres had burned, becoming the largest fire in the state’s history.

This video documents some of the effects on the residents, during and after the massive fire.

Carlton Complex
Carlton Complex as seen from the Incident Base, July 17, 2014. IMT photo.

We showed you another excellent video about the Carlton Complex in August.