2014 Carlton fire victims sue DNR

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Kent Stokes checks ear tag of cow killed in Finley Canyon near Twisp, Wash., in the Carlton Complex fire in July 2014. The Stokeses lost 250 head of cattle and 90 percent of their grazing but are not part of the lawsuit against the state.

OKANOGAN, Wash. — An attorney who has filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Natural Resources for its handling of the 2014 Carlton fire is investigating claims regarding the 2015 Chelan and Okanogan fires.

Alex Thomason, an attorney in Brewster and Seattle, said he has talked to dozens of victims of the 2015 fires interested in suing and is looking for more information from people who think they have claims of negligence in the ways fires were fought or not fought.

“We need eyewitnesses and people who lost property. They may or may not have legal basis for a claim, but we will investigate,” Thomason said, adding people should contact him at his Brewster office at 509-689-3471.

On Nov. 17, Thomason and attorneys with the Seattle law firm of Pfau Cochran Vertetis and Amala, filed a lawsuit of behalf of plaintiffs David and Deannis Schulz and John Clees in Okanogan County Superior Court.

The lawsuit claims the state Department of Natural Resources was negligent in failing to fight the Golden Hike fire, one of four fires in the Methow Valley started by lightning the morning of July 14, 2014, that merged and became known as the Carlton Complex fire. The fire burned 256,108 acres, caused two deaths, killed about 980 cattle, destroyed 277 primary residences, 50 cabins, 500 miles of fencing, millions of board feet of timber and thousands of acres of grazing for several years.

Claims from more than 200 people total more than $75 million, Thomason has said. Initially, he planned one class-action lawsuit, but instead filed on behalf of the Schulzes and Clees. If that is successful it will establish state liability on the rest of the claims, he said.

The single greatest losses, but not party to the lawsuit or claims against DNR, are the Gebbers family with the death of patriarch Danny Gebbers and estimated losses in timber, cattle, fences and orchards of $15.4 million to $17.8 million.

The lawsuit states the Golden Hike fire initially was confined to a few acres on DNR land and surrounding residents promptly notified the DNR of the fire’s existence and location.

Despite early notice, DNR was “negligent in responding” and when it did respond “was negligent in containing the fire,” the lawsuit states.

The agency abandoned fire lines early in an evening and did not return until morning, refused the assistance of local residents and volunteers who knew the geography and failed to keep all available equipment and personnel on fire lines, the suit states.

The agency also failed to call for more help until it was too late to prevent the blaze from spreading, the suit states. As a result, the fire spread onto the plaintiffs’ properties in less than two days causing extensive damage to timber, fences, buildings and farming, ranching and logging equipment.

The suit seeks damages to be proven in a jury trial.

DNR filed a response admitting Golden Hike fire started on its land but denying all allegations of negligence, saying reasonable judgments were made by authorized officials.

Resources were pulled from the fire the evening of July 14 for safety reasons and returned the next morning, the DNR response states.

The DNR claims exemption from liability in that it works for the general public and not any separate individuals or groups. DNR claims any liability that is found is the fault of plaintiffs and any negligence was caused by people not party to the lawsuit. The DNR asks the court to dismiss the case.

Thomason said the suit presents important political and legal questions, chiefly if the state is responsible like any landowner or if it has special rules allowing it to manage its land however it wants even if it results in destruction of neighboring property.

Gerald Scholz, of Pine Creek north of Riverside, and Craig Vejraska, Omak, are two of several ranchers who blame DNR and the U.S. Forest Service for destroying their private timber, pastures and hay with unnecessary backburning in the 2015 Okanogan fire.

Vejraska and Scholz said they don’t plan to sue because of costs and because its hard to sue agencies on the one hand while trying to curry their favor to allow resumption of grazing on lightly burned grazing allotments.

“I think people think that’s what we ought to do (sue) but I don’t think anyone is doing it,” Vejraska said.

Thomason said he doubts it would be legal for agencies to deny grazing rights in retaliation to those “exercising a constitutional right of seeking compensation for damage to property.”

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