An important hearing is coming up Thursday for hundreds of Central Washington homeowners suing Washington's Department of Natural Resources.
More than 300 families and businesses filed a lawsuit after the 2014 Carlton Complex wildfire, saying DNR failed in its duty to prevent the fire from spreading off of state land onto their private land. DNR's attorneys are asking the judge to dismiss the case entirely.
What started off as several lawsuits filed after the fire in 2014, has now been consolidated into one because all the claims are basically the same: that DNR failed in its responsibility to put those fires out when they were still small.
It all started with two families who live near where the Golden Hike fire started. The Golden Hike Fire eventually merged with three others to become the Carlton Complex. Those two families filed the initial lawsuit, because their property is right next door to DNR state land, where the Golden Hike fire was first sparked by lightning. Their main argument is that DNR has an obligation, just like any other landowner, to keep fire from spreading to someone else's land. In the lawsuit, they said DNR clearly had an opportunity to put the fires out but failed.
According to these court documents, homeowners said the department's efforts were "disorganized, understrength, and overcome by an inexcusable lack of urgency." They go on to say, "Over the next two days, DNR was constantly a step behind and missed numerous opportunities to contain the fires."
The state said a governmental agency has no duty to a particular person or class of people when performing a service for the public at large. That's called the "public duty doctrine." Homeowners said that only applies to them as a firefighting agency. Even if that's the case, they say DNR still has a duty as a landowner, to "exercise reasonable care and provide adequate protection against the spread of fire from the forestland it owns."
In the end, it will be up to a judge to decide. But remember, all of the cases have been consolidated, meaning, if this gets dismissed, it means they are all dismissed. This would be a huge blow to more than 300 homeowners who have insisted that DNR should be held responsible for what happened in 2014.
Both sides have prepared their arguments. That hearing before a judge is scheduled for Thursday. It is not expected that the judge will make a decision Thursday.