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.
The 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.