South Dakota Couple Files Lawsuit After Daughter’s Death in Fire

January 9, 2019

The parents of a 26-year-old woman killed in a fire at their home in Fairburn, S.D., filed a lawsuit against the small town and a neighbor, alleging a grass fire that sparked the deadly blaze was fueled by the remains of a nearby shed.

The lawsuit was filed last month in Custer County, the Rapid City Journal reported. The suit claimed a pile of wooden debris on the neighbor’s property fed the 2017 fire that killed Julie Pawelski.

The suit further asserted Fairburn officials had ordered that the shed be demolished, but the debris hadn’t been cleaned up.

“The subject fire consumed the wooden structure,” the plaintiff’s attorney, George Nelson, wrote, causing the fire to become “greater in size and fury.”

The suit alleges unlawful death and seeks damages from the town and the neighbor. A Fairburn legal representative couldn’t be reached and a voicemail left for the neighbor by the newspaper was not returned.

The blaze began when a 7-year-old child playing with a lighter started the grass fire. Wind pushed the fire to the demolished shed on the neighbor’s property and then to the Pawelski’s two-story residence.

Joe Harbach, Custer Fire Department Chief, was quoted at the time as saying the fire had the potential to destroy the entire town.

A state fire marshal report said the neighbor’s wooden structure had collapsed “from lack of maintenance.” Crews took an hour to contain the fire that burned two acres in town, damaging buildings and vehicles.

The summer of 2017 saw a drought across much of South Dakota, increasing fire risks and reducing crop production.

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