For the second time in four years, the state Department of Natural Resources is holding Public Utility District No. 1 of Klickitat County responsible for a wildfire it alleges was started when a tree came into contact with a KPUD power line.
Assistant Attorney General Michael J. Rollinger, the fire cost recovery attorney for DNR, said in his June 25 letter to the KPUD that the matter — which stems from last July’s Mile Marker 28 Fire northeast of Goldendale in the vicinity of mile marker 28 on U.S. Hwy 97 — was “referred to me for collection of fire suppression costs in the amount of $2,023,799.25 after the investigation concluded that the fire was negligently caused by Public Utility District No. 1 of Klickitat County.”
KPUD General Manager Jim Smith said Monday the utility “does not believe it was in any way negligent and that the fire resulted from acts and omissions of an uninsured company conducting logging operations in proximity to KPUD lines, without appropriate notifications to KPUD.”
KPUD asserts the fire was started by the logging company (now out of business) when it fell a tree across a KPUD line, then later removed it. Moreover, KPUD asserts the DNR failed to question witnesses who could testify to what happened to the power line.
“We’re going to have to go the extra step to prove somebody fell a tree on our line,” said KPUD Operations Manager Ron Ihrig.
In a news release dated July 7, KPUD officials noted, “KPUD is deeply disappointed that the DNR investigation was apparently limited in development of the facts, and is confident that the whole story will come out and the Utility will be exonerated from the cause of this fire.”
According to the DNR’s fire investigation report, Rollinger wrote, the Mile Marker 28 Fire “was the result of line-to-ground faults that occurred when the KPUD distribution line came into direct contact with branches from a mature grand fire tree immediately adjacent to, if not overhanging, the distribution line. Alternatively, the tree’s branches caused an arcing due to their close proximity to the power line. These line-to-ground faults resulted in the ignition of limbs, bark, stem, and needles igniting and falling into the dry fuels on the ground in close proximity to the tree and the fire spread from there.”
Smith said KPUD has not responded to Rollinger’s letter, and no lawsuit has been filed yet. “I’m not sure where this is going at this point,” he noted. “There are still a lot of questions to be answered, and we will be putting information out to keep the community informed.”
DNR currently is suing KPUD to recover fire suppression costs of $1.6 million, from the August 2010 Old Highway 8 Fire that burned some 2,000 acres west of Lyle. The case is before the Division III Court of Appeals. DNR believes KPUD is negligent for the Old Highway 8 Fire, which was caused when one stem of a double-stem ponderosa pine broke and fell across a KPUD line, and caused an arcing that sparked the fire. KPUD argues it is not liable because the tree was outside of its right of way and the utility had no obligation or legal authority to trim it back.
Rollinger wrote in his Mile Marker 28 Fire demand for payment letter, “If we cannot get this claim resolved without a lawsuit, DNR will pursue recovery of prejudgment interest and the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs specifically authorized by statute, in addition to the amount claimed ... These costs and fees will be substantial.”
KPUD had 30 days from the date of Rollinger’s letter to pay up, or else.