U.S. Government Sues Utility to Recover Firefighting Costs

NorthWestern Energy's negligence of a power line caused the fire, according to the lawsuit

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — The U.S. government, facing rising firefighting costs as blazes rage more frequently and with greater intensity across the West, wants Montana’s largest utility to compensate it for a 2010 wildfire near Canyon Ferry Lake east of Helena.

Over three days in July 2010, the Lakeside Fire burned nearly 900 acres of federal, state and private land. It destroyed a cabin and two other structures and forced the evacuation of residents north of the lake. More than 200 people from various agencies and led by the U.S. Forest Service responded to the fire.

NorthWestern Energy’s negligence of a power line caused the fire, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. A Forest Service investigation concluded the fire was started after the power line malfunctioned, severed and ignited the grass and timber on the ground.

The power line’s poles and insulators had not been properly maintained by NorthWestern Energy, the lawsuit said.

“The Ward Ranch Line would not have malfunctioned, snapped and caused the Lakeside Fire if defendant had exercised reasonable care in the maintenance and operation of the line,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Dishong wrote in the lawsuit.

The government seeks $485,855 — the cost of fighting the fire — plus interest and an unspecified amount in penalties.

NorthWestern’s attorneys filed a response Monday in which the company denies any liability. Attorney Chad Adams submitted a number of possible defenses, including that the damage caused by the fire was an Act of God, the fault of others not named or caused by the government itself.

NorthWestern spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch said she could not speak in detail about the lawsuit or the cause of the fire, but that the company strongly denies the allegation of negligence. “The company does plan to defend itself in court if it comes to that,” she said.

Fighting and preventing fires now consumes more than half of the Forest Service’s annual budget, and the agency estimates the costs could jump to two-thirds of the budget by 2025 unless changes are made. The costs have risen as fire seasons have grown longer and the size, frequency and severity of fires have increased, agency officials said in a report released last year.

But lawsuits such as the one filed against NorthWestern Energy are not part of any new strategy to cut down those costs, said Forest Service spokesman David Smith.

“If a responsible party has been identified, the government seeks to recover costs,” Smith said. “We’ve collected from energy companies, mines, and individuals over the years.”

It may not be uncommon for the U.S. government to sue to recover firefighting costs, but the government should be doing more of it, said J. Curtis Varone, a Rhode Island attorney who runs a blog called Fire Law.

“In the US we have historically looked at fire as an accident for which no one is really responsible,” Varone said in an email to The Associated Press Tuesday. “Many other countries look at it a bit differently: negligently causing a fire is a criminal act.”

Some states also have turned to the courts to recover firefighting costs. The Wyoming Supreme Court last year ruled the state could recover money from Black Hills Power Inc. that was spent fighting a 2012 wildfire on state land near Newcastle.

Montana also paid more than $13,000 of the cost of the Lakeside Fire, its share for the damage to state lands, according to a cost-share agreement between the Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The state agency is reviewing the federal lawsuit, spokesman John Grassy said.

“We haven’t made a determination whether or not we’ll get involved,” Grassy said.

Three landowners previously sued NorthWestern Energy over the Lakeside Fire, making similar claims to those contained in the government’s lawsuit. One of the landowners settled with the utility for terms that plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas Budewitz declined to disclose.

One of the other lawsuits was thrown out earlier this year and the other has been suspended, according to court records.

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