By Randy Bracht
(The Center Square) – A Spokane-based electric utility is facing two lawsuits associated with the Gray Fire near Medical Lake that destroyed more than 250 homes and structures with one related death last month.
Inland Power & Light Co. is named as the defendant in the two separate civil complaints filed earlier this week in Spokane County Superior Court. The company has not yet responded to the lawsuits and no trial dates have been set. Formed in 1937, Inland Power is an electrical cooperative serving 13 counties in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, including Spokane County.
The Gray Fire started in the early afternoon of Aug. 18 and spread rapidly due to hot, dry conditions and sustained southwesterly winds. The blaze burned over 10,000 acres, destroyed numerous homes and structures, prompted the mass evacuation of residents, and was linked to the death of a local man, 86-year-old Carl Grub.
The cause has been under investigation by local fire agencies and the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
A second major wildland fire, the Oregon Road Fire, also broke out that same afternoon in north Spokane County near the small community of Elk.
One lawsuit against Inland Power over the Gray Fire was filed Monday by plaintiff Akir Fowlkes, a resident of the Medical Lake area, who said he was forced to evacuate when flames came within 100 feet of his home. Fowlkes said the “horrific” fire caused property loss and emotional distress to many of his neighbors, loved ones and the community.
The complainant alleges that Inland Power knew about extreme risks posed on Aug. 18 due to “red flag” conditions and the area’s prior fire history. Based on that, the company could have temporarily de-energized its electrical lines as a precaution. “However, despite these warnings, defendants did not conduct a public power shut-off or de-energize their powerlines, despite knowledge that these are proven methods to prevent wildfires,” the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday lists 44 plaintiffs, Nicole Aguilar et al., who said they suffered a “catastrophic loss of property and personal belongings” due to the Gray Fire burning multiple neighborhoods in the areas of Medical Lake, Silver Lake, Clear Lake and Four Lakes.
Their complaint alleges the fire started on private property near the 12800 block of South Gray Road, southwest of Medical Lake. On the property, the suit states, there was a wooden pole fitted with a commercial outdoor light and a transformer. Several months before the fire, Inland Power allegedly received complaints from individuals who said the outdoor light was flickering or not functioning properly.
The lawsuit also alleges that one eyewitness standing near the light shortly before the fire started saw sparks or burning material dropping from the light or its wiring. The eyewitness reportedly provided statements to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The plaintiffs contend that Inland Power was negligent for failing to adequately design, maintain, or operate its electrical system, resulting in the damage and losses caused by the fire.
Plaintiffs in both cases are seeking unspecified damages to be proven at trial, including losses due to emotional distress and recovery of attorney fees.
Fowlkes is represented by attorney Gerald Singleton of the Singleton Schreiber law firm in San Diego, California.
The lawsuit in the Aguilar et al complaint was filed by Spokane attorney John D. Allison on behalf of attorney Christopher C. Sieglock, Sieglock Law Inc., of Del Mar, Calif.