Oregon Sues People Suspected of Starting 2 Wildfires

September 20, 2016

The State of Oregon has filed lawsuits against people it says were responsible for starting two forest fires.

The state filed one suit against a man who is accused of napping while his campfire sparked a 200-acre Southern Oregon blaze, according to the Oregonian/OregonLive. In that case filed against Joe Thurmond Askins, his wife and step-daughter, the state is seeking almost $900,000 to cover the costs of extinguishing the July 2014 fire.

The suit accuses them of building the campfire in July 2014 despite a ban in place because of extremely dry conditions.

The state also filed a $3.6 million lawsuit against an Eastern Oregon rancher who investigators say negligently drove a utility vehicle across fields of bone-dry grass – igniting what became a 2,700-acre wildfire in Grant County in August 2014.

According to the second lawsuit, rancher John Lee Habberstad should have known that the exhaust system on his utility vehicle posed a fire hazard. The system reached temperatures of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the suit said.

None of the defendants listed in this week’s lawsuits could be reached for comment.

The Oregon Department of Forestry says about two-thirds of wildfires are started by humans. The other third is caused by lightning.

The state is required by law to try to recover wildfire-fighting costs, said Jeff Bonebrake, the department’s investigation and cost recovery coordinator. That includes the costs of helicopters, bulldozers and paying and feeding firefighters.

Bonebrake said he has more than 100 open cases and most are settled before the state gets to the point of filing lawsuits. Often, settlements are covered by insurance companies, but they also can be paid by individuals, Bonebrake said.

The Southern Oregon lawsuit accuses the three campers of building a campfire ring out of rocks in Klamath County. They were on their own private land, but the campfire ban still applied to them, the lawsuit states.

The suit says Askins was napping while the other two family members went to a store. Askins reportedly told investigators, “I’ll take all the blame for the fire,” the suit said.

In October 2014, Askins was charged in state circuit court with misdemeanor reckless burning. The following month he failed to appear for a hearing, according to court records. A judge issued a warrant for his arrest, which still appears to be active.

Askins lives in Nevada with his wife and stepdaughter, according to his court file. He wrote a letter to the Klamath County district attorney a month after the warrant was issued pleading for the case to be dropped.

The other lawsuit says Habberstad was a part owner of China Peak Ranch in Grant County and should have known the danger of driving his 2013 Honda Big Red utility vehicle across large portions of the ranch.

Dry weeds or grass snagged on the vehicle’s exhaust system, and smoldering debris fell from the vehicle onto 2-foot-tall grass he drove across, igniting fire, the suit said.

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