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Federal lawsuit filed against BPA, EWEB, and Lane Electric on behalf of Holiday Farm Fire survivors

Burning forest at night.
Incident Facebook page/U.S. Forest Service
The Holiday Farm Fire burns along the McKenzie River near the Leaburg Dam.

A small coalition of law firms in Oregon and California have collectively filed suit against three regional utilities for their alleged lack of safeguards and mishandling of electrical transmissions right before the Holiday Farm Fire broke out on Sept. 7, 2020. 

In a roughly 200-page complaint filed with Oregon’s U.S. District Court on Jan. 16, the attorneys alleged that Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) failed to properly inspect and monitor its power line in the area where the fire occurred, as well as properly ensuring that trees wouldn't fall against or contact the line during a high wind and “red flag” event. Other allegations include failing to remove so-called danger trees from where power lines stood, and not de-energizing BPA lines that provided power to EWEB’s and Lane Electric’s lines that day. 

The suit, Adams et al v. Bonneville Power Administration et al, was filed on behalf of 188 individuals, 8 minors, 18 companies, and 24 family or investment trusts. Attorneys want a jury trial and are seeking damages of $232 million. Originally, the case had been filed with Lane County Circuit Court.

Burnt car and destroyed home.
Brian Bull
Ruins of a destroyed car and home in Blue River, a month after the Holiday Farm Fire burned through the area.

Attorney Alex Robertson told KLCC that this rose to the federal level because a records request through the Freedom of Information Act revealed the federally-operated Bonneville Power Administration’s actions on Labor Day 2020, which he says proves their culpability. Robertson alleges that an initial outage on BPA’s high-voltage lines wasn’t followed up on. 

“Given the high fire danger that existed, we just find that inexcusable and callous and reckless that they would know that something came into their lines - which they later determined was a very tall pine tree - and they didn't do anything about it,” said Robertson. “They decided the conditions were too windy, and they decided that they would go patrol it the next day, which course by then, the entire valley was on fire.” 

The four firms – Roberston Associates LLP, Brady Mertz PC, Rick Klingbeil, and Foley, Bezek, Behle & Curtis, LLP – allege gross negligence on BPA’s part. They point out exceptionally hot, dry, and windy conditions affecting the region in early September 2020, which made for dangerous situation. 

For their part, EWEB and Lane Electric (designated “LEC” in the official complaint) are accused of being negligent in safeguarding space around power lines from “danger trees” and other hazards, and contributing to the issues that led to the conflagration. 

The complaint section in question reads: 

“LEC unreasonably delayed deenergizing its power lines after the initial fault, then again the subsequent fault and Fire near MP 47 on McKenzie Highway. This delay hindered initial firefighting efforts and contributed to the rapid and uncontrolled spread of the EWEB/LEC Fire. 

“The Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection District, other emergency workers, or those acting on their behalf made calls to EWEB to determine whether its fallen powerlines were deenergized. For at least one hour and 20 minutes, no one at EWEB with the appropriate authority answered or returned the calls, or otherwise responded with information regarding the status of EWEB’s powerlines.

“At the time the EWEB/LEC fire ignited, the wind gusts were estimated to be around 60 miles per hour with sustained winds of 40 miles per hour, causing the fire to spread rapidly. Because of LEC’s delays and EWEB’s non-response, firefighters and emergency workers had to stand by while the EWEB/LEC fire spread westward and became uncontrollable, eventually merging with the BPA fire to become the Holiday Farm Fire.” 

Residents remember 

The Holiday Farm Fire was but part of a series of blazes that erupted that week, which eventually made 2020 the worst wildfire season in Oregon history. 

Chris LaVoie owned and operated the McKenzie River Mountain Resort, a former ranger station that he bought in 2006, then converted into a boutique hotel and conference center. 

“And that burnt down pretty much," he said. "We had about 20,000 sq. feet of buildings and when all was said and done we had about 3,000 feet left. The rest was pretty much turned to dust.” 

LaVoie recalled the night of Sept. 7, 2020. After the evacuation levels reached the “evacuate now” stage, he pounded on guests’ doors before making his own escape. 

“Getting in the van I was looking over at the top of our building and the hill behind it, and it was at the river,” LaVoie told KLCC. “Just orange balls of flame that were just rolling across the hillside, super hot smoke and ash was just blowing past us at high speeds.”

Workers in hazmat suits examining burnt ruins of home.
Brian Bull
EPA workers examine a destroyed section of Blue River in Oct. 2020.

LaVoie said it was certainly “a life alternating experience” to lose his business and most of his property. He had to wait a month before coming back to the charred remnants, an experience that taxed his patience. 

“For me trying to deal with the tragedy of it all, I was trying to get to work on fixing things and so I stayed occupied and tried to stay sane,” said LaVoie. “’Okay, what am I going to do now? What do I got to do now instead of just getting all super emotional about the loss?’ I was trying to stave off the grief for later.” 

For now, LaVoie lives in Leaburg and serves the McKenzie Community Partnership as its executive director. The nonprofit is part of the rebuilding and planning effort for areas hit by the Holiday Farm Fire. 

A claimant to this latest lawsuit, Lavoie is hopeful a successful trial will help him and others recoup their losses and rebuild. He figured he’s about $3 million short of the cost to replace the resort buildings he lost in 2020.

“It doesn't cost any of the grounds repair or the remediation work, sidewalks, the roadways, any other damaged to the facilities, infrastructure,” he added. “There's a lot of damage, a lot of stuff that needs to be done. I've got a bid for trying to repave the parking lot for about a million dollars. It's just amazing how much other contractors are charging these days.” 

Another claimant is Scott Wright, a 60-year-old retiree who said he had surgery on his right arm’s ulnar nerve the day before the Holiday Farm Fire. The very next night, he and his wife fled their residence as flames quickly covered the hillsides. 

“We got a bang on the RV doors, (someone) saying ‘Get out!’ and my arm was even not even close to healed yet,” recalled Wright. “And I had to get my sick wife and my animals and stuff into her car to get her have evacuated.”

Wright said he soaked himself and some bandanas down to help cope with the thick smoke, but it was of limited help. 

“I already had COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) so that didn’t help anything," he said. "Smoke damage to my lungs is bad enough. I had to do everything I could with an arm that had surgery trying to carry my wife, take care of the animals, get them in the truck.” 

Wright said it took him five days to even access an ER. 

“My arm was purple and my shoulder and my neck and my side, my back, would go purple because the damage did against it. It had a hematoma or something like that. They tried to drain but it the doctor said it was it was already coagulated inside. It wasn't going to drain out.” 

Wright said the damage he sustained from the Holiday Farm Fire caused a permanent disability. He says he’s been advised to move to San Francisco where he can receive more specialized medical care for his condition, but he’d rather not. 

Burnt trees.
Brian Bull
Burnt forest and hillside in the McKenzie River Corridor, Sept. 2020.

For now, Wright considers himself lucky to have found a house he can live in, but regrets that he’s unable to work and is collecting disability for his arm that lacks a sense of touch. 

“Cut it off and give me a frickin’ bionic arm, I don’t care,” he said. 

Wright said his wife died in May 2023 after her chronic liver issues where the organ produced too much ammonia. He said she was an Alaskan Native and if and when a settlement is reached, he’ll give the children of Nome, Alaska the money and scatter her ashes in the Bering Sea. 

I really don't care what happens after that," he said. "I'm done with this world.” 

Next steps 

KLCC approached all three utilities named as defendants in this federal suit. So far, only EWEB responded by saying it won’t comment on pending litigation. It’s not unusual for an organization to decline to comment on an active lawsuit. 

A trial date has not been scheduled as of yet, and there remains the possibility of a settlement. 

On Jan. 16, the same day this lawsuit representing 238 claimants was filed, another one representing nearly 60 insurance companies was also filed against BPA, EWEB, and Lane Electric. A lawyer with a firm based in San Diego has confirmed with KLCC that they’re working on a lawsuit of their own. That’s on top of another one they filed last September in the Court of Federal Claims, which BPA has until Feb. 12 to respond to. 

Copyright 2024, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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