ANCHORAGE (AP) Jurors in the Big Lake fire trial began deliberations Wednesday, nearly seven years after Alaska's most destructive blaze.
The jury is pondering whether the state Division of Forestry let the fire spread from 46 acres to an out-of-control inferno that destroyed more than 400 structures across 37,000 acres from Houston to south of Wasilla.
If the jury decides the state was at fault, property owners will then seek damages in another phase of the case. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say damages from the 1996 fire exceeded $100 million.
The state disputes that its firefighters did anything wrong, and state lawyers argue that unpredicted gusty winds fanned the fire out of control.
Closing statements Tuesday capped the six-week civil trial in Palmer.
Attorneys for the property owners, including a team that successfully represented fishermen and others damaged in the 1989 Exxon oil spill, told jurors their choice is clear, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
First, the state lost control of the smaller fire, said John Hinderaker, a Minneapolis-based attorney representing the property owners. Then, when embers flying off the main fire ignited and exploded into walls of flame the night of June 3, state firefighters stood by and watched, Hinderaker said.
He repeated the contention that fire bosses saw a column of smoke that evening but let it burn because they thought it was within the boundaries of the fire line and under control.
The Forestry Division never disputed this contention, Hinderaker said.
If you could point to one single thing that's the heart of this case, that's it. They saw this smoke column and they just foolishly assumed it was not a hazard,'' he said.
Hinderaker said firefighters threw their notebooks into the path of oncoming flames to destroy evidence. He said several had smoked marijuana 12 hours before the fire and crews ate chicken dinners by the Little Susitna River as the fire flared out of control.
He also noted the possibility that a deliberately set fire to remove flammable brush and trees caused the fire.
Tim Lamb, an Anchorage attorney representing the state, said the state did set burnouts, but not until the days after the fire escaped.
Lamb said freak winds blew the fire out of control. Plaintiffs argued that winds never exceeded about 10 mph, as forecast. But the state argued that winds gusted 20, 30, even 40 mph, created by a weather system missed by forecasters as it blew out of the Alaska Range.
Lamb played videotaped testimony from a smoke jumper who dropped from 3,000 feet and testified that winds above 22 mph pushed him backward into the smoke column.
This was a natural disaster,'' Lamb said. This was high winds, and nobody knew it was coming.''
He also responded to the allegations that crews stood by as the fire took off.
One federal smoke jumper testified during the trial that he reached the first spot fire'' ignited by an ember within about five minutes and soon a ring of firefighters surrounded the fire.
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