RENO, Nev. (CN) – Nevada residents who lost pricey homes in a wind-swept wildfire ignited by embers from a controlled burn have sued a state agency and university for inverse condemnation, claiming the fire amounts to a physical invasion and taking of their property for a public use without just compensation.
Owners of property ravaged by last October’s fire on the western edge of Washoe Valley, about 20 miles south of Reno, say in the lawsuits that the Nevada Division of Forestry, working in cooperation with the University of Nevada, Reno, failed to manage the controlled burn and knew the risk that the burn could set off a wildfire especially in light of a weather forecast of an approaching storm with high winds.
Three separate state court complaints naming 16 plaintiffs have been filed, one on Monday and two last week.
In outlining the condemnation claim, one of the complaints states, “The exorbitant amount of interference that defendants have caused to plaintiffs’ property amounts to a taking of said property without the lawful authority and without formal exercise of the power of eminent domain, resulting in inverse condemnation.”
The fire, the complaint states, rendered the plaintiffs’ property “valueless and virtually unusable.”
State forestry officials launched the prescribed burn in forested property to reduce fire fuel and provide a defensive space for residents, including the plaintiffs. The burn was within the Whittell Forest and Wildlife Area, owned and maintained by the university for research and teaching purposes.
Officials stopped the burn early when an atmospheric river storm with wind gusts in excess of 80 mph was forecast. The suspension came too late, however.
A government investigation concluded that an escape from the controlled burn caused the so-called Little Valley Fire. The investigation found that “with wind gusts of more than 80 mph, embers from smoldering or reignited vegetation crossed the control line for the prescribed fire and ignited unburned vegetation outside the prescribed fire.”
The fire, which covered more than 2,000 acres, burned 23 homes, many valued at more than $1 million. Two of the plaintiffs, a married couple, pegged their loss at more than $10 million.
An independent fire investigation consultant told the Reno Gazette-Journal shortly after the fire that the value of property loss could top $80 million when outbuildings, vehicles, landscaping and personal belongings are considered in addition to homes.
The plaintiffs are entitled to recover attorneys’ fees as part of damages if they prevail on the inverse condemnation claim.
The Nevada Supreme Court, in a 2016 decision, established the elements of inverse condemnation. The court said a party must show: “(1) a taking (2) of real or personal interest in private property (3) for public use (4) without just compensation being paid (5) that is proximately caused by a governmental entity (6) that has not instituted formal proceedings.”
In addition to inverse condemnation, the plaintiffs’ claims include negligence, strict liability, nuisance and trespass.
A representative of the Nevada attorney general’s office said the office does not comment on pending litigation.
William Jeanney of Bradley, Drendel & Jeanney in Reno represents the plaintiff in two of the suits. Plaintiffs in the other suit are represented by Eva Segerblom of Maddox, Segerblom and Canepa, Matthew Sharp and Stephen Osborne, all of Reno.