A sawmill operator Weed is investigating whether hot ash stored on its campus sparked a wildfire that killed two people and burned dozens of homes last week.
The plant fire started Sept. 2 on or near Roseburg Forest Products property and quickly spread to the communities of Lincoln Heights and Lake Shastina, killing two women aged 66 and 73, according to the Siskiyou County Sheriff. Authorities have not officially determined the cause of the blaze, which was 75% contained Thursday after burning nearly 4,000 acres.
The Springfield, Oregon-based wood products company is investigating whether the fire was started by ash from its cogeneration facility, which burns wood scraps to power its veneer plant, the company said in a statement. A press release. The ashes are supposed to be sprayed with cooling water after being ejected by the generator, but it is possible that a water spray machine has failed, the company said. The water spray machine was provided by a third-party equipment manufacturer, according to the statement.
Two buildings on the factory campus burned: the Planer Building – a large warehouse used to store spare parts – and Hangar 17 – a smaller bunker where ashes were stored, said Pete Hillan, Door -word of the company. Shed 17, which shared a wall with the planer building, was cement but housed in an old timber frame, he said. There was less than half a truckload of ashes inside the bunker when the fire broke out, he added.
Several witnesses said the fire appeared to have spread to homes after starting at or near the planer building. The company has not confirmed this, but is cooperating with firefighters’ investigation and conducting its own review, Hillan said.
A lawsuit filed Thursday in Sacramento County Superior Court on behalf of a family whose home was destroyed alleges the company failed to properly handle the hot ash, despite knowing the area was highly sensitive to catastrophic fires. He cites intrusion, negligence, private and public nuisance and seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
“This is a very serious matter,” said attorney James Frantz, who represents the family. He has been contacted by several other residents and plans to file further claims, he said.
The lawyer said an investigation by his firm revealed multiple complaints about the company’s handling of hot ash over a long period.
“It appears they consciously ignored the safety of not only their employees but the entire communities of Lincoln Heights and Lake Shastina,” he said. “It’s really egregious, frankly, that this timber production has been handled with such negligence.”
The company is aware that some claim it has a history of mishandling ashes, but is unaware of the facts surrounding those allegations, Hillan said.
He declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the company had not yet received a copy of the complaint.
Roseburg Forest Products also announced plans to provide up to $50 million to a community restoration fund to help meet the initial recovery needs of residents affected by the fire. Among the displaced are three employees who lost their homes. The fund, which is intended to help people with emergency expenses that may not be covered or paid promptly by their home or auto insurers, is not an admission of liability, the company said.
Company officials saw how long it took residents to get financial relief after other fires and wanted to do something to help the community where Roseburg has been a major employer for 40 years, Hillan said.
“We just think it’s the right thing to do, regardless of origin,” he said.
If the company determines that its property started the fire, it will also ask its insurers to open a claims handling office in Weed where residents can file claims without hiring a lawyer, and adjusters can review and pay for them, the press release said.
Frantz said $50 million was insufficient to cover the losses, which include more than 100 destroyed structures, and called it “ridiculous” that the company is suggesting residents don’t need to hire lawyers, which ‘he described as a way to avoid a full broadcast of what happened.
“This case must be argued in court before a jury, and they must be held fully responsible for what happened here,” he said.
Frantz, whose firm has handled more than 7,000 fire claims in California, also represents about 30 Siskiyou County residents affected by the McKinney Fire, which killed four people and burned more than 60,000 acres after its start in Klamath National Forest on July 29. the lawsuit filed on behalf of these residents alleges the fire was started by PacifiCorp electrical equipment; it appears a tree fell in a distribution line, Frantz said.
Utility companies are also targeted by two other recent fires. Southern California Edison reported “circuit activity” around the same time the deadly 19,000-acre Fairview Fire started Monday in Hemet. And Pacific Gas & Electric Co. filed a report with the state revealing ‘electrical activity’ on one of its transmission lines near where the 6,800-acre Mosquito Fire started. Tuesday in Placer County.
Frantz said recent events underscore the need for commercial and utility companies to start putting safety measures before profits.
“They have to pull themselves together because we are going to see fire after fire, death after death and the total destruction of communities,” he said. “It’s got to stop, and the only way it’s going to stop is litigation.”