PHOENIX (CN) – Arizona is off the hook for extensive property damage caused by a deadly lightning-sparked wildfire in 2013, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
The June 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire destroyed 127 homes and businesses in the town of Yarnell, population 649, burned 8,400 acres and killed 19 members of an elite firefighting squad after the blaze suddenly changed direction.
More than 160 property owners claimed Arizona and its Forestry Division “failed miserably” while managing the wildfire, the original complaint stated.
Plaintiffs called the slain firefighters heroes and blamed the forestry agency of carelessness.
“If the Arizona State Forestry Division had competently managed, contained, and suppressed the Yarnell Hill Fire, no member of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew would have died – and Yarnell and its people would have escaped devastation,” the lawsuit said.
The property owners claimed state officials’ negligence, along with their failure to give timely evacuation notice to residents, made Arizona liable for damages.
The appellate court disagreed.
Ruling in the residents’ favor would require Arizona to act as insurer of all private property against natural disasters, Judge Kent Cattani wrote for the three-judge panel. Requiring that would create a “self-defeating incentive” for Arizona to stop fighting wildland fires, Cattani concluded.
In 2014, the Industrial Commission of Arizona fined the state $559,000 for the deaths of the hotshots. The commission said the Forestry Division should have prioritized the evacuation of the crew, reversing an earlier internal finding that cleared the Forestry Division of wrongdoing.
“An active plan of using firebreaks, burn-outs, ground crews and ground equipment, and vigorous aerial retardant and water drops, could have protected all of the firefighters and safeguarded Yarnell,” the lawsuit said. “But the Arizona State Forestry Division floundered, adopting a strategy of uncoordinated reaction instead of planned action.”
Despite the plaintiffs’ wrongful death claims, the appellate court emphasized their case involved only the property damage caused by the wildfire.
“The tragic loss of life is not at issue here,” Cattani wrote.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the state became responsible when they chose to interfere with local firefighting efforts.
“The Arizona Court of Appeals incorrectly concluded that it would be bad public policy to hold the state liable for negligence in fighting wildfires,” attorney Craig Knapp said in a statement. “The best public policy is, we believe, to hold the state as liable as any private citizen for any negligence that it commits when it decides to act.”
Knapp said they plan to file a motion for reconsideration by April 14. If denied, the residents plan to appeal their case to the Arizona Supreme Court.
“What we can say for certain is that we will keep fighting for the residents of Yarnell,” Knapp said.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office did not return requests for comment by press time.