Did DNR ever look into claims of wildfire mismanagement?
Author: Whitney Ward , KREM.com
Published: 11:33 AM PST November 20, 2015
Updated: 11:44 AM PDT October 3, 2017
2-ON-YOUR-SIDE 0 Articles

At least 200 families are preparing to sue the Department Natural Resources for what they lost to the 2014 Carlton Complex fire. The fire leveled a quarter million acres and 357 buildings. It started as just a few spot fires.

Neighbors of the Golden Hike lightning strike filed a suit in Olympia on Tuesday. The fire began on state land, and the suit alleges DNR did not do enough to stop it when it was small. It merged with two others, and became the massive complex.

"There must have been six to seven engines, and a CAT, sitting in that field," said one resident. "And they left me. Left me there."

Another resident said he was ready to fight the fire himself.

"Could have stopped that fire and they wouldn't let us. No we couldn't," the man said.

KREM 2 spoke with DNR Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark about the claims 13 months ago.

"Whether or not DNR crews didn't participate when they should have, I doubt very much," said Goldmark.

Nevertheless, Goldmark vowed to follow up on the claims and talk to homeowners about their experience during July of 2014.

In the fall of 2014, KREM 2 checked up on Goldmark and his efforts to get to the bottom of the dispute.

"It's hard for me to know the voracity of those charges. I wasn't there. We haven't completed our investigation," said Goldmark.

Goldmark had a different answer in the spring. When asked if he had a chance to substantiate the claims, and talk with homeowners, he responded, "We've investigated every claim that we could."

"We haven't found any credible claim that we could back up through other means," said Goldmark.

DNR is now facing a lawsuit filed by three neighbors claiming mismanagement. At least 200 other neighbors said they are planning a second suit against the state for the same reasons: Negligence and resulting loss.

Kim Maltais lost his home, his dogs, all of his belongings, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of heavy equipment, timber, and land.

"People don't think your government lies to you. you'd better think again," said Maltais.

Maltais said multiple DNR fire engines and water trucks were parked just across from his property as the fire broke out. He said they sat there watching as his home burned down.

"We just could not believe the callousness of those people who could just... I mean, I could never do what they did. I don't care who gave me an order," said Maltais.

"I could never just sit there and watch somebody's life be destroyed, without trying to do something," said Maltais. "That's a hard pill to swallow. And it really ingrains in you that you're on your own."

Maltais' claims are at the heart of the DNR and homeowner dispute Goldmark alleged to address.

So, did anyone from DNR ever ask Maltais about it?

"Nope. No, I haven't seen a soul," he said.

DNR representatives told KREM 2 they held several public meetings right after the fire for people to voice their concerns. They said much of that testimony was considered part of the investigation process.

KREM 2 asked for any proof or records showing DNR met or even talked on the phone with fire victims. Representatives said the request could not be filled in time. KREM reached out a second time, and did not hear back as of Nov. 19.

"They're going to do and say anything they can to protect themselves," said Maltais.

The Okanogan Complex of 2015 burned through more than a million acres across the state. Victims of the Carlton Complex said they understood the bitter loss from the year before.

"These people, you know, their battles have just started. They have no idea," said Maltais. "We just feel so bad. Because we know what these people are going to go through."

Maltais and his wife have joined the lawsuit of hundreds against DNR.

The attorney gathering that case said the battle has just begun. But he added that the 2015 fire season, though worse in numbers, did not have the same backlash as 2014.

"We didn't hear as much of the same complaints about DNR firefighters blocking roads, trying to tackle people preventing them from fighting fire on their own land, threatening people with arrest. We haven't heard those phone calls," said attorney Alex Thomason. "The difference between this year and last year is that DNR knows they have exposure, that what they did last year to people's property and homes was wrong."

The events of the 2014 Carlton Complex, and how DNR reacted, may never be fully revealed.

Thomason said he believes DNR never even tried to contact homeowners.

"We have 230 people. Not a single person has received a phone call from a DNR investigator asking about their experience," said Thomason. "I've also talked to over a thousand witnesses. They've also not received a single phone call."

But regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, Thomason said the saga has already created change.

Last month, Goldmark made an unprecedented request for $24 million from state lawmakers. He said officials may now fully understand the need to be proactive, especially in managing state forest land.

"We have to have trained and ready efforts locally that can respond in a manner of minutes, not in a manner of days. It just doesn't work to keep the fires small," said Goldmark.

He said they have made some changes in preparing for the fire season 2016.

"To have more crews available, to have more commanders available, to have more equipment available, that's interspersed across the landscape in such a way that no matter where the fire occurs, there's a crew, say, within 30-40 minutes."

Maltais and other homeowners said those promises have not healed their scars. They want change, but are cautious about expecting it.

"It's one of the worst things, having that anger in you," said Maltais. "Maybe enough people will realize now, that something's gotta be done."