SEATTLE, Wash. - Three people whose homes and acres of property were destroyed during the worst wildfire in Washington state history are blaming the Department of Natural Resources for their losses.
They all live near Carlton, and filed a lawsuit in Okanogan Superior Court this week naming the State of Washington DNR as defendant.
The plaintiffs contend the DNR was negligent by not fighting the initially small Golden Hike fire. That blaze eventually converged with three other wildfires, making up the Carlton Complex fire of 2014. The plaintiffs also claim the state was negligent for not allowing them to fight the flames themselves, even though their neighboring properties were threatened. One of the plaintiffs, David Shulz, was a firefighter in Okanogan County for 45-years, according to his attorney. “We had smoke jumpers that asked permission” to jump into the Golden Hike fire the day it was ignited by lightning, Alex Thomason said. “We had local firefighters that asked permission to go and fight. We had local Cat drivers who asked permission to go on DNR property,” Thomason said on Wednesday. “The DNR said, no, no, no.”
According to Thomason, “The issue is, what happened when it was a small, containable fire? The DNR let the fire grow and grow and grow, and there was no reason to do that.”
KIRO 7 covered the Methow Valley fires, and reported on neighbors who often pitched-in to extinguish multiple hot-spots themselves. However, Thomason said when the Golden Hike fire first ignited on DNR property on July 16, the DNR would not allow bordering landowners to help battle the flames. “The Defendant prevented local volunteers and residents from helping their neighbors battle the fire,” the complaint details. “The Defendant abandoned fire lines early in the evening and did not return until morning.”
Thomason is a Chelan-based attorney who represents more than 200 clients who also lost their homes and property. This first lawsuit could set a precedent that could put the state on the hook for hundreds of millions in damages.
“Yes, we’re asking for the DNR to pay for what they’ve done, as a good neighbor should,” Thomason said. “We’re also asking them to listen to local people, to change their policy, to let local people participate. If a firefighter on the ground says, ‘I’m going to go charge that hill,’ we let them do that. We shouldn’t have to let them call back to Olympia for permission.”
Sandra Kaiser, communications director for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, declined to comment on the lawsuit because it “is under litigation” she wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, Thomason is asking for the case to be tried before a jury.