(The Center Square) – The Washington Department of Natural Resources will seek a legal opinion on whether a Spokane-based utility company is responsible for firefighting costs resulting from a raging blaze that burned hundreds of homes and thousands of acres last August.
On Monday, DNR issued an investigation report that said the Gray Road Fire in Spokane County was caused by sparks falling from an arcing connector on a pole-mounted security light owned by Inland Power and Light.
The report adds confirmation to what some area residents initially suspected as starting the destructive fire, which broke out on the afternoon of Aug. 18 near Medical Lake and resulted in mass evacuations, one death, and property damage estimated in the millions.
“Inland Power was responsible for this fire,” DNR senior fire inspector John McDonald wrote in the report. As a result, McDonald said the agency is justified in billing the utility company for firefighting and emergency response costs.
No dollar amount was specified, but any billing would be limited to fire suppression efforts and not losses incurred by private property owners, Thomas Kyle-Milward, DNR wildfire communications manager, told The Center Square on Thursday.
Kyle-Milward said the incident was “definitely a big-number … high-dollar fire” to which multiple agencies responded. Tabulating their expenses will take time, he said. “It’s very early in the process and there’s a ton of work to be done.”
The report will be submitted to the state Attorney General’s Office for review and DNR will ultimately follow whatever legal recommendation is provided, including possible litigation, Kyle-Milward said.
The fire was reported in the early afternoon of Aug. 18 in the 12600 block of South Gray Road by witnesses who said they saw sparks falling from the light pole and igniting dry grasses in the vicinity. At the time, Spokane County and all of eastern Washington were under a “red flag” warning for high winds, high temperatures, and extremely low humidity.
One woman told the DNR investigator that she had twice called Inland Power earlier that summer to report that the light was flickering and might have a loose wire. To her knowledge, the utility company never responded to either notification, the report stated. After being informed of the fire, a crew was dispatched to the location, disconnected power from the light, then left the area.
In his report, McDonald discounted one emailed statement from an unnamed person who claimed that the property owner, Carl Grub – whose death was linked to the fire – had been welding and using a grinder on a horse trailer at the location. In response, McDonald said there were no signs of a trailer at the scene or evidence of welding or grinding activity. A neighbor also said the 86-year-old Grub was mostly non-ambulatory and not physically capable of such work.
At least two civil lawsuits are pending in Spokane County Superior Court alleging negligence against Inland Power and Light, an investor-owned utility serving 13 counties in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.
The company has not commented, but McDonald said that Inland Light’s attorney, Scott Cefriese, was involved in providing information and materials collected by a utility crew at the scene and turned over to DNR as evidence.
The Gray Road Fire was one of two which erupted in the county on Aug. 18. The Oregon Fire started the same afternoon near the small community of Elk. Collectively, the two blazes burned more than 22,484 acres, destroyed over 710 structures including 366 homes, and claimed two lives. Hundreds of firefighters from across the region were deployed and remained on scene into early September, with DNR serving as primary coordinator for the response.