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Reporter debrief: Federal lawsuit against regional utilities over Holiday Farm Fire

Burned out ruins.
Brian Bull
Blue River ruins photographed Feb. 2021.

The Holiday Farm Fire of 2020 was just part of what became Oregon’s worst wildfire season on record that year. Now a federal lawsuit filed last week in Oregon’s U.S. District Court points the finger of accountability at several regional utilities, particularly the Bonneville Power Administration, or BPA.

KLCC’s Brian Bull has covered the Holiday Farm Fire extensively.  He joins us in studio to discuss this lawsuit.  Hi, Brian.

BULL: Hi, Love.

CROSS:  Let’s quickly refresh what this wildfire did to the McKenzie River Corridor on Labor Day, 2020.

BULL: Sure. An anticipated east wind event hit the region, gusts between 40 to 60 miles per hour were recorded, at a time when the region was very hot and dry. What had been a leisurely holiday with outdoor recreation and cookouts turned into a frantic nightmare, with the Holiday Farm Fire burning quickly through the valley, decimating the community of Blue River and damaging other towns. People who fled described it like driving through a furnace, with many escaping into Springfield on the rims of their tires. The fire had melted away the rubber.

CROSS:  Over 173,000 acres burned, with more than 500 structures destroyed including many homes. Amazingly, only one person – a Vida man – died.   So what’s the gist of this lawsuit, Brian?

BULL: Two law firms in Oregon and two in California are collectively representing over 200 claimants affected by the Holiday Farm Fire. They say the claimants suffered harm to their physical and emotional well-being, as well as diminished market value to their properties. This suit also includes two dozen trusts, and nearly 20 businesses like Ike’s Pizza, the Riverside Inn Restaurant, McKenzie Mist, and the McKenzie River Mountain Resort.

CROSS:  And according to documents you’ve received, the attorneys are seeking damages of $232 million?

BULL: Yes, and while EWEB and Lane County Electric Co-Op are listed as defendants, the real impetus of this suit is against BPA, which attorneys accuse of being negligent in preventing risk and harm on a number of counts. This ranges from not removing so-called danger trees from power infrastructure, to not properly managing the transmission of electrical power during the conditions leading to the formation of the Holiday Farm Fire. One attorney, Alex Robertson, claims that BPA knew of an outage during the late afternoon of Labor Day 2020, but held off on patrolling the site, which would have revealed the collapse of a large pine tree.

The allegations against the other two utilities are mostly about failure to taking steps to reduce the dangers of powerlines and equipment during a high wind and “red flag” event, including circuit breakers.

CROSS: Have the utilities responded to these allegations, Brian?

BULL: I reached out to all three, and so far only EWEB has responded by saying it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. It’s not unusual for organizations to decline to comment on an active lawsuit.

Homemade "thank you" signs for firefighters.
Brian Bull
Homemade "thank you" signs for firefighters decorate a chain link fence outside the incident command post for the Holiday Farm Fire in Springfield, September 2020.

CROSS: This case is significant not only because it’s a federal lawsuit, but because it directly accuses a federally-operated utility of negligence. 

BULL: Correct, Love. A similar suit had been filed in Lane County Circuit Court, but attorneys for the claimants say documents gained through a records request last June established accountability with BPA, so it could move to the federal level. In the complaint, those attorneys say BPA’s conduct showed, quote “a willful, wanton, and reckless disregard” of a foreseeable and substantial risk of harm to properties.

And this case isn’t about just property. The complaint talks of emotional and physical harm to claimants. One is Scott Wright, who told me he sustained permanent damage while overcome with smoke during the Holiday Farm Fire.

Scott Wright: “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 out to the car, take care of the animals, get them in the truck. It took five days to even get to an emergency room.”

CROSS:  And this isn’t the end of the legal actions, I understand.

BULL: The very same day this lawsuit was filed, another one on behalf of nearly 60 insurance companies was also filed against the same utilities. And a lawyer with a firm based in San Diego has confirmed with me that they’re working on a legal complaint of their own, which sounds like it’ll mirror the one with those 20 dozen claimants. That’s on top of a complaint this same firm filed last September in the Court of Federal Claims, which BPA has until February 12 to respond to.

CROSS:  Thank you for your work, Brian, on this new development.

BULL: You’re welcome, Love.

CROSS:  KLCC’s Brian Bull on a new federal lawsuit accusing several regional utilities including BPA of negligence.  Attorneys are pressing for a jury trial.  We’ll have more in the months ahead.

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.
Love Cross joined KLCC in 2017. She began her public radio career as a graduate student, serving as Morning Edition Host for Boise State Public Radio in the late 1990s. She earned her undergraduate degree in Rhetoric and Communication from University of California at Davis, and her Master’s Degree from Boise State University. In addition to her work in public radio, Love teaches college-level courses in Communication and Sociology.
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