Alaska Supreme Court rules on lawsuit over burnout

Rex Creek Fire
The Rex Creek Fire on August 4, 2009, part of the Railbelt Complex in Alaska. Photo by ADF.

In 2009 firefighters in Alaska conducted a burnout operation on the Railbelt Complex of fires 45 mile southwest of Fairbanks. Part of the fire was on private land and four of the landowners filed a lawsuit asking for $100,000 each charging that the burnout was an illegal “taking” of their property. They also charged “negligence and intentional misconduct”, saying the state failed to adequately mop up after rains knocked down the fires, which later re-ignited.

The Alaska Supreme Court, reviewing a previous decision by a Superior Court, ruled that the landowners may be eligible for compensation.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Newsminer:

A Superior Court judge dismissed the eminent domain claim in December 2010, finding the state’s actions “did not constitute a taking because they were a valid exercise of its police powers,” and dismissed the negligence and intentional misconduct claims on the grounds of government immunity, according to court documents.

The landowners appealed the decision.

The Supreme Court’s ruling affirmed the Superior Court’s dismissal of the negligence and intentional misconduct claims but reversed the dismissal of the eminent domain claim, “remanding it to the Superior Court for further consideration of whether the specific exercise of the state’s police powers at issue here was justified by the doctrine of necessity,” according to the opinion documents.

“The doctrine applies only if the state demonstrates the existence of ‘imminent danger and an actual emergency giving rise to actual necessity,’ an inquiry that is fact-specific,” the Supreme Court’s 28-page ruling states.

The landowners’ attorney, William Satterberg, was pleased with the ruling and expects the case to now be decided by a jury. He said the state did not need to set the burnout fires on his clients’ properties and that the fire was “basically a fire of convenience.”

“It was easier to light it there than it was to do it a mile away,” he said. “We do know they had lots of time, they could have gone down a mile away from their property. They thought about it for 11 days before they did it.”

Another excerpt from a previous article in the Newsminer:

“The point is, what’s a piece of burned-out property worth versus a piece of beautiful lakeside property?” said Bill Satterberg, who is representing the landowners. “You can’t just go around destroying people’s property and not pay for it.”

The Railbelt Complex of fires eventually burned over 600,000 acres.

Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” made its first drop on a live fire in North America on the fire. It was done at no charge to the fire, with the company wanting to demonstrate the capability of the 20,000-gallon air tanker.

Evergreen's 747 "Supertanker"
Evergreen’s 747 “Supertanker” drops on the Railbelt Complex of fires in Alaska, July 31, 2009.

Below is a video of a large burnout operation on the Railbelt Complex, July 16, 2009, narrated by the Incident Commander. .

We first wrote about the lawsuit in 2009.

UPDATE, December 1, 2014: As Emmett pointed out in a comment this situation has some similarities to a lawsuit filed by a Montana rancher over the 2000 Ryan Gulch Fire. The heart of that case was the contention that firefighters who usually fought fire in the flat, wet southeast United States used poor judgement in selecting and implementing an indirect strategy of backfiring or burning out, rather than constructing direct fireline on the edge of the fire. In the process, they argued, more land burned than was necessary, including 900 acres of a privately owned ranch.

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

Landowners sue state of Alaska for vegetation that burned in 2009 fire

rex creek railbelt fire complex
The Rex Creek fire on August 4, 2009, part of the Railbelt Complex in Alaska. Photo: ADF

According to an article at, four landowners are demanding that the state of Alaska give them at least $100,000 each because some vegetation burned on their property during the 636,224-acre Railbelt Complex southwest of Nenana in 2009.

The landowners claim in the lawsuit that fire managers failed to adequately mopup the fire following some rains, and the fire later flared up, burning vegetation on their property which decreased the value. The lawsuit says firefighters lit a backfire on their property in order to stop the fire’s spread.

This brings to mind Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg’s lawsuit against the Billings Fire Department over the loss of trees and ground cover on his property during an 1,100-acre fire in 2008.

The 747 Supertanker made it’s first drop on an actual fire in North America on the Railbelt Complex.

Here is an article on Wildfire Today containing a video of an aerially-ignited firing operation on the Railbelt Complex.

747 Supertanker drops on Alaska fire

The 747 air tanker made two free drops on the Railbelt complex in Alaska on Friday. Evergreen, who built and operates the “Supertanker”, made the drops at no cost to Fairbanks Area Forestry in an effort to demonstrate the capabilities of the aircraft. They made two drops, dispensing a total of 20,000 gallons of retardant.

This was the first time the aircraft has dropped on a live fire in North America. Last week they made a similar demonstration drop on a fire in Spain, which was the first time they had dropped on an actual fire.

In spite of the 747 drops, the Railbelt complex grew by 67,000 acres on Friday, for a new total of 443,447 burned acres.

Smokejumpers, hand crews, and hot shot crews are protecting 226 cabins that are threatened along the Tanana, Teklanika, Toklat and Kantishna Rivers. On Friday smokejumpers delivered an all terrain vehicle by paracargo to a crew at Totek Lake.

Smoke from fires in Alaska on Friday caused two Northwest Airlines flights scheduled to land in Fairbanks to be diverted to Anchorage.