ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Jury selection began Monday in Palmer in a lawsuit that charges the state could have prevented the disastrous Big Lake wildfire of 1996.
The fire destroyed more than 400 houses and other buildings and caused an estimated $15 million in damage.
Court officials plan at least two days of jury selection before Superior Court Judge John Reese, normally based in Anchorage.
Jury questionnaires have been sent to 260 residents of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The court is casting a wide net because the case is well-known and elicits strong opinions in Mat-Su.
''It's a big case that affects a lot of people in the Valley,'' said Peter Gruenstein, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs. ''We all recognize that jury selection will require more care than would normally be the case.''
The fire was the state's costliest and was the first to blaze through a populated area. Whipped by wind, it burned a path across 37,000 acres.
In 1998, about 600 Big Lake-area homeowners and landowners filed a class-action lawsuit charging that the state Division of Forestry could have stopped it.
The next year, a Superior Court judge dismissed the suit. Later, the Alaska Supreme Court sent the whole thing back down to the Superior Court.
The trial will establish whether state fire officials were responsible for losing control of the fire, but it will not establish the amount in damages, if any, due the victims. It is expected to last four to eight weeks, with a 12-day break to accommodate spring vacations.
In a section devoted to the fire, the questionnaire asks jurors how much they know about the blaze, whether they know anyone who suffered because of it and whether they fought the fire or know someone who did.
Their answers helped attorneys for both sides and the judge make the first cut of potential jurors obviously unable to serve because of direct connections to the case.
Locals say it might be hard to find an unbiased pool of jurors.
''There's a lot of angry people here about that fire,'' said J.D. Stone, a cashier at the Big Lake Super Store.
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