Jurors hear opening statements in Big Lake fire lawsuit

Posted: Friday, February 28, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Lawyers for property owners say inept state firefighters let the 1996 Big Lake wildfire get out of control, while attorneys for the state say a sudden wind overpowered firefighters' best efforts and whipped a small blaze into an inferno.

Opening statements were heard Thursday in the civil trial filed by property owners against the state Division of Forestry.

The Big Lake fire began on June 2, 1996. By June 3 it had flared into a conflagration that eventually burned more than 400 homes and buildings and covered about 65 square miles.

Roughly 600 burned-out property owners filed a class-action lawsuit against the state Division of Forestry nearly five years ago.

About 50 people, including dozens of plaintiffs, jammed into seats or stood in a small courtroom in Palmer Thursday to hear the start of a case that could decide whether the state is responsible for what has been called Alaska's most destructive fire.

In opening statements, attorneys from both sides outlined their cases to help jurors organize the expected flood of evidence in the coming weeks.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that forestry officials caused a 50-acre fire to escape by not taking it seriously.

They argued that the state sent volunteer firefighters and equipment home too soon, fought the early stages of the fire in a ''lackadaisical'' manner without enough manpower or water, and intentionally set a burnout fire that flared out of control. Burnout is a term for a managed fire set to reduce fuel in the main fire's path.

The cause of the fire was not officially determined. But Tim Lamb, an Anchorage attorney representing the state, said Thursday it was apparently started by fireworks.

State attorneys argue that their crews were handling the fire until the wind, which had apparently died down the afternoon of June 3, suddenly began blowing to 25 mph or more, whipping the fire beyond their control.

The state says no burnout was ever set. The volunteers were sent home because they weren't trained to fight wildfire and could have been hurt or killed. And the decisions made by fire crews and bosses followed protocol.

In the path of the fire were rural subdivisions, hundreds of homes on large lots surrounded by trees. Fighting fires in such locales demands crews with specialized training, Lamb said. The crews included federal smoke jumpers, some with more than 20 years of experience.

''Nature is powerful, unpredictable, can't be tamed,'' he said. ''Fire and wind, two forces of nature combined, they overcame some of the best firefighters in the world.''

The trial is expected to last up to two months, with a two-week break in the middle to allow for spring vacations.

Plaintiffs originally filed suit against the state in 1998. A Superior Court judge dismissed the case in 1999, but the Alaska Supreme Court later remanded it back to Superior Court.

The trial does not address damages. In the past, plaintiffs' attorneys have estimated the cost of damage at roughly $100 million.



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