South Dakota Utility, Phone Company Sued Over Fire

August 24, 2018

A group of landowners is suing a South Dakota utility and a Minnesota-based telephone company for alleged negligence in the third-largest wildfire in the Black Hills region’s history.

Black Hills landowners filed the lawsuit Friday in Custer County against Black Hills Power and Hanson Communications, The Rapid City Journal reported. The lawsuit alleges the companies caused the Legion Lake fire in December by failing to use proper care around the root system of a large tree in Custer State Park that fell onto a power line.

“Upon investigation, it was discovered that the root system was cut when a utility trench was dug adjacent to the tree, causing the tree’s soil root plate to be severely damaged, rendering it vulnerable to toppling,” the lawsuit said.

A state investigation had found that the Legion Lake fire began when a tree fell onto a power line in the park. Flames spread into Wind Cave National Park and onto private property, ultimately scorching 84 square miles (218 square kilometers).

A spokeswoman for Black Hills Corporation, the parent company of Black Hills Power, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The companies should’ve conducted a “tree risk assessment” and removed or trimmed trees so they wouldn’t be capable of striking the power line, the lawsuit said.

“Black Hills Energy has a proactive vegetation management program that meets industry standards and accounts for all applicable state laws and regulations,” the company said in an earlier statement about the fire. “We monitor all right-of-way clearances via aerial or ground patrol.”

The lawsuit notes the loss of real estate, agricultural value and aesthetics. The landowners are seeking unspecified damages.

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