Politics & Government

State officials routinely bill people who start wildfires — but they rarely get paid

Brandon Gardner, a firefighter with Snohomish County Fire District 7, pulls a water hose into position while helping prevent a wildfire from spreading to a nearby homeowner’s property near Okanogan in 2015.
Brandon Gardner, a firefighter with Snohomish County Fire District 7, pulls a water hose into position while helping prevent a wildfire from spreading to a nearby homeowner’s property near Okanogan in 2015. The Herald via AP

Andy Knutson didn’t see the red-hot piece of metal fly away from him that day.

When he looked up, the flames were 3 feet high.

Knutson, a teacher who lives in Okanogan County, said he frantically tried to put out the fire, which started about 15 feet from where he was working on a summer remodeling project.

He succeeded at singeing the hair on his arms and melting his shoes, but couldn’t put out the blaze, which went on to scorch nearly 2,000 acres over three days.

Nine months later, Knutson received a bill in the mail, saying he owed the state Department of Natural Resources $1.8 million.

It was more than the public school teacher could afford to pay, he said.

“My life in terms of things was just turned upside down,” Knutson, 60, said of the fire, which burned near Omak in 2011.

It is about getting the money back, but also sending a message that people are held accountable.

Peter Goldmark, public lands commissioner, on billing people who are deemed to have started fires negligently

State law entitles DNR to recover firefighting costs from those deemed to have negligently started wildfires in Washington.

But the agency is rarely successful when it comes to recouping all of its costs, according to information DNR provided in response to a public records request.

That’s sometimes due to an individual’s inability to pay, as in Knutson’s case. Other times, it’s because the parties deemed liable dispute that the fires were their fault, or that they could have done anything to prevent them.

Public utility districts are particularly upset with how the state goes about trying to recover fire-suppression costs, with some utility officials saying they are getting billed for acts of nature for which they shouldn’t be held accountable.

“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 Public Utility District, regarding one 2010 fire for which DNR found the utility district liable for $2.7 million. The utility district is in litigation with DNR over that fire and one other.

$44,880,733 Amount the state spent battling 44 recent fires it deemed to be caused by negligence

$9,943,185How much the state had recovered in those cases as of July

For Knutson, paying $1.8 million to the state wasn’t an option. “It would be my whole life savings,” he said.

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

Such outcomes are common, said Peter Goldmark, who leads DNR as the state’s commissioner of public lands.

“Are we getting everything that we deserve? No,” said Goldmark, who is retiring this fall after serving two terms in office.

Yet Goldmark said it’s important for state officials to keep pursuing the full cost of negligently caused fires — even if DNR may fight for years in court or is unlikely to actually get paid.

Sending a hefty bill reminds people there are consequences for being careless enough to start a fire, Goldmark said, while also recovering at least a small part of the taxpayer dollars spent battling the flames.

“It is about getting the money back, but also sending a message that people are held accountable,” Goldmark said.

My life in terms of things was just turned upside down.

Andy Knutson, a teacher who received a bill for $1.8 million after a fire

Over the last three fire seasons, about 80 percent of wildfires in Washington state have been caused by people, as opposed to weather events like lightning strikes.

DNR officials couldn’t provide numbers for how many of those fires were determined to be started negligently; many are still under investigation, they said.

Yet in response to a request from The News Tribune and The Olympian, agency officials provided information on 44 recent cases in which they tried to recover fire-suppression costs.

The agency spent a total of almost $45 million battling those fires, some of which date back to the mid-2000s. As of July, DNR had recovered only about $10 million in those cases, or 22 percent of the money the agency originally sought.

At least nine of the fire cases are still ongoing or in litigation.

2,596Number of fires in Washington from 2014 to 2016

2,084 Number of those fires that were human-caused

590 Number of fires since 2014 that were arson or are still being investigated

Some of those legal fights have involved officials at public utility districts and private companies that own power lines, which Goldmark said are major contributors to wildfires in Washington.

All told, 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, DNR officials held the utility liable after a tree fell on one of its power lines.

Smith, the PUD’s general manager, said the tree was green, healthy and located outside the utility’s right of way, all of which limited the district’s ability to cut it down or otherwise prevent it from falling during a windstorm.

A forest pathologist for DNR disagreed, saying the tree had a split trunk and other defects that made it a hazard — a status that would have required the utility district to do something about it.

“All we are doing is spending public money fighting over which public agency should pay for it,” Smith said of the legal battle over the fire. “How is that in the public interest?”

All we are doing is spending public money fighting over which public agency should pay for it. How is that in the public interest?

Jim Smith, general manager of the Klickitat Public Utility District

George Caan, executive director of the Washington Public Utility District Association, said utility officials want clarification about when they can cut down trees in those types of situations, or else not be held liable when a fire occurs.

“All of our PUDs are concerned about this,” Caan said, noting public utility districts often operate in rural areas where fires occur more frequently.

State Rep. Brian Blake, a Democrat from Aberdeen who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said he agrees the issue is one that could use some resolution.

“If an act of God happens and the wind blows a tree into a power line and a fire starts, I’m not sure the PUD should be held liable,” Blake said.

Another lawmaker, Republican state Rep. Joel Kretz of Wauconda, said he also plans to look into the topic when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

At the same time, Kretz said it’s important to keep a law on the books that deters people from doing reckless things, such as shooting fireworks in dry, fire-prone conditions.

“There have been instances where people have done the same thing several times and started a fire,” Kretz said. “How do you change that behavior?”

“I think getting a bill like that would go a long way towards it.”

 

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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