Insurers, People Rarely Pay When Washington Bills for Negligence-Caused Wildfires

September 12, 2016

Washington regularly bills people who are deemed to have negligently started wildfires, but the state isn’t always successful at collecting.

The state Department of Natural Resources spent about $45 million fighting 44 of the most recent fires caused by negligence, some dating back to the mid-2000s, but has only recovered about $10 million – or about 22 percent of the amount it originally sought, The News Tribune reported.

Sometimes people can’t afford to pay. Other times, parties dispute their role in the fires or that anything could have been done to prevent them.

State law entitles the agency to recover firefighting costs from fires caused by negligence.

In a 2010 fire involving Klickitat Public Utility District, for example, DNR held the utility liable for $27 million in firefighting costs after a tree fell on one of its power lines. That case is in litigation.

“My opinion is the wind broke a tree and blew half of it over (onto a power line). How are we negligent for that?” asked Jim Smith, general manager of the Klickitat PUD. “All we are doing is spending public money fighting over which public agency should pay for it.”

Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, whose agency fights fires on more than 13 million acres of private and state-owned forest lands, said it’s important to keep pursuing the full costs even if the agency never gets paid or has to fight it in court.

“It is about getting the money back, but also sending a message that people are held accountable,” said Goldmark, who leaves office at the end of the year.

At least nine of the 44 cases of negligence are still ongoing or in litigation. Many of those legal fights involve public utility districts.

DNR has billed public utilities and power companies $20.6 million for nine recent fires. As of July, the agency had collected only $2.8 million in those cases.

In the 2010 fire involving Klickitat PUD, Smith said the tree that fell down was healthy and outside the utility’s right of way, limiting the district’s ability to cut it down.

A DNR forest pathologist, however, said the tree had a split trunk and other defects that made it a hazard, which should have required some action.

In 2011, Andy Knutson, a public school teacher in Okanogan County, got a bill from the state for $1.8 million.

He was working on a summer remodeling project when a red-hot piece of metal sparked a fire that eventually scorched nearly 2,000 acres near Omak over three days. The 60-year-old said he wasn’t able to put out the blaze that melted his shoes and singed the hair on his arms.

After a yearlong battle, the state agency settled with Knutson’s insurance company for $300,000, the maximum amount his homeowner’s policy would pay.

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