PALMER (AP) Jurors in the Big Lake fire trial spent just four and a half hours Wednesday deciding that state firefighters weren't negligent in their attempts to control Alaska's most destructive wildfire.
The blaze destroyed more than 400 structures across 37,000 acres from Houston to areas south of Wasilla.
Attorneys for the property owners who sued the state argued that damages from the 1996 fire exceeded $100 million.
Lawyers for the state argued in the six-week civil trial that unpredicted gusty winds fanned the fire out of control.
Attorneys for the property owners said the state lost control of a smaller fire that could have been contained. 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, said John Hinderaker, a Minneapolis-based attorney representing the property owners.
Hinderaker charged that 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 as the fire flared out of control.
Tim Lamb, an Anchorage attorney representing the state, 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 that blaze.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.