Arizona High Court Declines to Review Homeowners’ Yarnell Wildfire Case

November 1, 2017

The Arizona Supreme Court has declined to review a case involving the deadly Yarnell Hill wildfire that devastated a rural Arizona community in 2013 and killed 19 elite firefighters.

The decision leaves intact the Arizona Court of Appeals’ ruling seven months ago that the state doesn’t have a legal duty to protect property from naturally caused wildfires.

That ruling upheld a trial judge’s dismissal of two lawsuits filed against the state and its forestry division by homeowners whose property was destroyed.

The decision by the state’s high court on Oct. 20 came without comment.

A telephone message for an attorney for the Yarnell homeowners wasn’t immediately returned Monday evening.

The lightning-started wildfire destroyed about 125 homes in Yarnell and nearby communities about 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Prescott.

Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighting team died in the wildfire. But the lawsuits involved in the March 30 ruling only dealt with private property.

The Arizona Court of Appeals found that adding to the state’s firefighting efforts a duty to protect private property would require the state to act as an insurer and could cause “perverse incentives” prompting public officials to try to shield the state from liability by simply doing nothing to fight wildfires.

“Such a result is contrary to the overriding needs of the public,” Judge Kent Cattani wrote in the ruling by a three-judge panel.

The homeowners in the two lawsuits, including a class-action one, contended the state negligently managed firefighting efforts in the fire’s early days, negligently failed to protect Yarnell and negligently failed to provide a timely evacuation notice.

But the trial judge and the Court of Appeals agreed with the state’s argument that it didn’t have a duty to protect property when it undertook management of the wildfire.

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