HELENA – U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg on Tuesday defended his company’s recent lawsuit against the city of Billings over the way firefighters dealt with a 2008 blaze that damaged a subdivision project developed by the company.
Rehberg Ranch LLC, the company owned by Rehberg and his wife Jan, said the city and the Billings fire department need to pay for damages caused by the 2008 range fire.
The lawsuit, which was filed Friday, accused the firefighters of pulling from the fire too quickly, resulting in scorched trees and ground cover and irreparable damage on a large section of land intended for development at Rehberg Ranch Estates.
His lawyer, Cliff Edwards, said Tuesday that he contacted the city last week requesting settlement talks in order to postpone a lawsuit, and was rejected by the city administrator. Edwards said the lawsuit was filed just under the two-year statute of limitation for such property damage.
Billings city administrator Christina Volek said she could not recall the Rehbergs asking for a settlement over the issue.
Edwards said that the fire consumed 1,200 acres of property, including 600 acres of Rehberg Ranch property, and that the city rejected a request for a report surrounding that fire.
He said Rehberg’s lawsuit “focuses on the administrative and management decisions and actions, which led to the withdrawal of firefighters from an existing fire scene during high temperature and high wind conditions.” He said the lawsuit said if the firefighters had been allowed to stay, the larger fire could have been avoided.
Volek said that the fire from the Fourth of July holiday in 2008 came during 100-degree heat and amid several blazes in the area.
“I do believe that the firefighters working very hard on that fire prevented it from reaching any of the Rehberg Ranch homes,” she said. “I think they did an admirable job trying to contain the fire as best they could.”
Billings city officials said they can’t recall another lawsuit in recent years like the one from Rehberg, and point out no other land owners affected by that 2008 fire are suing.
Democrat Dennis McDonald, who is challenging the Republican incumbent in the November election, said Rehberg has plenty of money and doesn’t need to sue the citizens of Billings for more.
“The firefighters worked in debilitating heat and windy conditions and did what they always do — respond heroically and ultimately controlled this blaze. Homes were saved, lives saved, and trees and grasslands were protected,” McDonald said. “These heroes deserve a huge ‘thank you,’ not a Rehberg lawsuit.”
But Rehberg said Tuesday that he has the “deepest respect for firefighters and the dangerous work they do.”
“The appreciation I expressed to the front-line firefighters back in 2008 is the same appreciation I feel today,” Rehberg said in a statement. “We continue to be very thankful for their bravery and skill.”
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