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

More Wildfire sports teams

Wildfire team

In August we wrote about three football teams named “Wildfire”. Today we ran across someone talking about wildfire on Twitter and it turned out to be referring to what appears to be a girls’ hockey team in Canada (see the photo above).

Then we found another women’s hockey team in Wenatchee, Washington:

Wenatchee Wildfire

And still another one, Holy Family/Waconia in Minnesota:

Holy Family/Waconia Wildfire


Washington: Colockum Tarps Fire

(UPDATE at 7:35 p.m. PDT, July 30, 2013)

The Colockum Tarps Fire continued to spread to the south Tuesday, and according to the incident management team has now burned 59,316 acres.

In the map of the fire below, the red squares represent heat detected by a satellite during the day on Tuesday. The red line was the perimeter at 1 a.m. Tuesday. Despite the appearance of some of the red squares, the fire has not crossed the Columbia River.

Map of Colockum Fire at 2:25 p.m. PDT July 30, 2013
Map of Colockum Fire,  July 30, 2013 (click to enlarge)

About three miles southwest of the fire is a new wind farm with hundreds of wind generators. It is under a “level 2” evacuation notice, which is the next level before Get Out NOW. The fire is moving in that direction but the vegetation in the area is fairly light and firefighters are hopeful that the facilities will not be too difficult to protect. They had structure protection personnel checking it out Tuesday evening. (I wonder how retardant would affect the wind generators?)

Hotshot crews were transported by boats on the Columbia River to their assignments on the south side of the fire Tuesday.

Single engine air tankers are working the fire along with helicopters and one of the DC-10s, which is reloading at Moses Lake.


(UPDATE at 7:40 a.m. PDT, July 30, 2013)

We have a more accurate map of the Colockum Tarps Fire, which, according to our sources, has burned approximately 46,000 acres, or 72 square miles. The fire is still active and continues to spread on the west and south sides. Information about evacuations can be found on InciWeb.

Map of Colockum Fire at 1 a.m. PDT July 30, 2013
Map of Colockum Fire at 1 a.m. PDT July 30, 2013 (click to enlarge)

Carl Buick explained to us, with a visual aid, how the Colockum Tarps Fire got its name. It started near Colockum Creek and the next drainage over is Tarpiscan creek. The initial attack operations were first set up at the road junction seen below.

Colockum Tarps Fire
Photo near the origin of the Colockum Tarps Fire. Photo by Carl Buick

Continue reading “Washington: Colockum Tarps Fire”

Wildfire briefing, June 28, 2013

Former volunteer firefighter sentenced for arson

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a former volunteer firefighter was sentenced to a total of two years in jail for setting fires in the northern California counties of Sonoma and San Mateo. Our original story on the charges is here, and the Chronicle has the details about Friday’s sentencing of Nathaniel Ridgway Schmidt, 20, of Cazadero, California.

Extreme heat forecast for some areas in the West

This weekend and the first part of next week some areas in the west will experience extremely hot weather. The temperature for Death Valley was expected to reach nearly 130 on Friday — just short of the 134-degree reading from a century ago that stands as the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. More details.

This is a good time for firefighters to review the video on Heat Related Illness.

Heat wave map NWS 3-7 day outlook
Much above normal temperatures are forecast for parts of the West on July 1-3, 2013. Map: NOAA and FEMA.

Helicopter crashes into river near Missoula

A helicopter made a crash landing into a river Friday while recertifying for water bucket operations near Missoula, Montana. Both the pilot and a passenger survived, according to an article in the Missoulian. More details are at Fire Aviation.

Colorado: West Fork Complex Fire

West Fork Complex, June 25, 2013
Smoke from the West Fork Complex at sunset, June 25, 2013 by @PagosaCabin

The Papoose Fire, part of the West Fork Complex of fires in southern Colorado, was extremely active Thursday night and early Friday morning, running for four miles and creating new spot fires 1 to 1.5 miles ahead. More details are in our main article about the fire.

New York Times on smaller budgets for fuel management

The New York Times is the latest news organization to run a major story on how the federal government is reducing the budgets for prescribed fire and other types of fuel mitigation which lower the fire risk by removing accumulations of thick vegetation in forests and in wildland-urban interfaces near populated areas. Here is an excerpt from their article:

The government has cut back on programs to reduce fire risks in areas where homes and the wilderness collide. The United States Forest Service treated 1.87 million acres of those lands in 2012, but expects to treat only 685,000 acres next year. Conservation advocates say that is likely to mean fewer people working to prevent runaway fires, fewer controlled burns and fewer trucks hauling away dry brush and tinder.

Trimming trees and clearing brush can make blazes less destructive, and the Forest Service said it had treated more than 26 million acres since 2000. But as the government spends an increasing amount to battle wildfires, critics say it makes little sense to cut back on prevention.

“There is a growing consensus in the West that dollar for dollar, these kinds of prevention efforts are paying off,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. “And when the big fires break out, the bureaucracy steals money from the prevention fund and the problem gets worse. The Forest Service has become the fire service.”

Senators write letter about cuts in fuel treatments

More Senators have written another letter about cuts to fire budgets. The AP reports:

A bipartisan group of Western U.S. senators on Friday urged the Obama administration to focus more on preventing wildfires rather than taking money from programs that clear potentially hazardous dead trees and brush to fund efforts to fight the increasingly destructive blazes.

It is easy to write letters. Politicians tend to look the other way when it comes to actually DOING SOMETHING MEANINGFUL to correct the problem, such proposing and passing budget legislation. (sigh)

Wildfire smoke closes George Parks Highway in Alaska

Smoke from the Skinny’s Road Fire, which is named after a nearby bar, forced officials to close a section of the George Parks Highway between Nenana and Fairbanks on Wednesday. It reopened Thursday but travelers had to be escorted by pilot cars through the smoke. The highway is the main route between between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska.

Lightning in the Yukon starts 23 fires

Fire managers in the Yukon Territory asked the British Columbia government to send 62 more fighters to help put out 23 new fires started by lightning Thursday. They will join the other 45 firefighters that B.C. sent to help out earlier.

Below is an excerpt from an article at CBC.com:

“Obviously, the emphasis right now is the protection of life and property, while maintaining the safety of our staff,” said Fire Information Officer George Maratos.

“Given the intense fire behaviour on some of these fires, the safest and most effective response was from the air with air tankers and helicopters.”

One of the priority fires is burning 18 kilometres east of Faro. Two are near Carmacks: one 45 kilometres east of the community near Little Salmon River and another 16 kilometres northwest near Free Gold Road. The fourth is 36 kilometres northeast of Mayo.

Environment Canada is forecasting more thunderstorms in the area for Friday.

Los Alamos National Laboratory criticized for wildfire preparedness

A report issued by the Department of Energy’s inspector general said the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has not done enough to protect the facility from wildfires and other natural disasters. The inspectors were concerned about what would happen if an earthquake or fire caused damage that could lead to exposure from some of the radioactive waste stored at the lab.

On May 10, 2000, a fire that began as a prescribed fire in Bandalier National Monument burned into Los Alamos. The Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire was carried by very strong winds, with embers blowing a mile or more across the fire lines to the north, south, and east. The towns of Los Alamos and White Rock were in the fire’s path and more than 18,000 residents evacuated.

By the end of the day on May 10, the fire had burned 18,000 acres, destroyed 235 homes, and damaged many other structures. The fire also spread towards the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and although fires spotted onto the facility’s lands, all major structures were secured and no releases of radiation occurred.

Washington: Soap Lake fire department quits

The Columbia Basin Herald reports that after the Mayor of Soap Lake, Washington (map) fired the Fire Chief, 11 volunteer firefighters resigned from the fire department, leaving the town with no fire protection. This mess began from a fund raiser to replace the water tank on a wildland fire truck.

Oregon drought worries ranchers and firefighters

A severe drought in southeast Oregon has firefighters concerned and has forced the Bureau of Land Management to haul water to herds of wild mustangs and pronghorn antelope.

Mount Rushmore cancels July 4 fireworks show

Mount Rushmore has again cancelled the July 4 fireworks extravaganza, which rains down large quantities of fireworks debris into the forest and rocky slopes around the sculpture. Previous fireworks at the Memorial have caused over twenty small fires. The Park Superintendent, Cheryl Schreier, cited the fire hazard in the nearby beetle-damaged forest as the reason for the cancellation.


Thanks go out to Dick and Kelly.

Spring season fire in Washington burns 100 acres.

Dog Mountain Fire
Dog Mountain Fire, 5-6-2013, Washington DOT photo

Since the Dog Mountain Fire about 30 miles southwest of Mt. Rainier in Washington (map) was reported May 4, 2013, it has burned approximately 100 acres near the eastern end of Riffe Lake in Lewis County. It is 50 percent contained, and approximately 80 people continue to be assigned to it under a Type 3 organization lead by Incident Commander Charley Burns. The fire is burning in a recently logged area and 8-year-old forest plantation owned by the Port Blakely Tree Farms.

Dog Mountain Fire
Dog Mountain Fire, 5-6-2013, Washington DOT photo

Bulldozers, fire engines, and water-dropping helicopters are assigned to the fire which was initially fanned and spread by dry east winds.

Crews continue to construct containment lines and mop-up where possible. The cause of the fire is under investigation. No structures are threatened and no homes have been evacuated.

Investigators determine exploding targets caused 7,300-acre Goat Fire

U.S. Forest Service investigators have determined that target shooters using exploding targets caused the Goat Fire which burned 7,378 acres three miles southwest of Pateros, Washington (map) in September. Investigators had previously said that two other fires in the state may have been started by exploding targets — a 120-acre blaze in Mud Creek Entiat and another on Deadman Hill near Cashmere.

Here is an excerpt from the Wenatchee World:

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is reviewing the U.S. Forest Service investigation into the Goat Fire near Pateros, said Forest Service spokesman Tom Knappenberger.

He said criminal charges could be filed later.

Anyone convicted of igniting the blaze could also be required to pay for suppression costs and other damages.

The Goat Fire burned mostly on Forest Service land, but also charred some private property and Bureau of Land Management land.

Emergency service towers, cellular phone towers, local television broadcast equipment, and buried power lines were threatened in the fire that burned from Sept. 15 until Nov. 9.

These devices have become more popular in the last year. When we wrote about this dangerous trend last October, with a quick Google search we found 22 fires during a 5-month period that were started by the use of exploding targets.

Goat Fire
Goat Fire. Photo by Kurt Ranta.


Thanks go out to Carl