Sunday, December 15, 2013

Residents file legal claims over actions during the blaze

More than a dozen Yarnell-area residents filed a raft of legal claims on Friday with the Arizona Attorney General's Office seeking damages for loss of property and lost earning potential from the Yarnell Hill Fire and for emotional distress arising from a "cover-up."

Homes burn as the Yarnell Hill Fire burns in Glenn Ilah
Homes burn as the Yarnell Hill Fire burns in Glenn Ilah
In the notices of claim, the residents say that the fire destroyed their homes and other property and much of their community because of the "negligence, carelessness and intentional misconduct" of Yavapai County, Prescott, the state and the Yarnell Fire District.

They argue that with reasonable coordination and planning, firefighting managers could have prevented the area's "obliteration" without endangering the Granite Mountain Hotshots -- 19 of whom died in the June 30 blaze -- or other firefighters battling the blaze.

The notices of claim further charge that fire commanders had a duty to arrange an orderly withdrawal that would have allowed fleeing residents to save heirlooms, mementos and other personal property. That, the notices argue, would have "changed the last-minute, terror-filled, desperate flight for their lives into a calm, orderly and efficient retreat."

The claims seek damages from the state, Yavapai County, Prescott and the Yarnell Fire District. The Fire District handles firefighting in the area. The Arizona State Forestry Division was coordinating the fight against the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30.

Representatives of the county and the Forestry Division did not respond to calls for comment on the claims late Friday. A Prescott city representative declined to comment. Richard Mayer, a member of the Yarnell Fire District board, said that members have a regularly scheduled meeting Dec. 20 and that he did not want to comment until after the meeting.

A spokesman with the state Department of Administration said officials would not comment on active claims.

Craig Knapp, attorney for those who filed the notices, declined to comment. "We're not done, so I can't comment until we're done filing all the claims," he said. He declined to specify how many more will be filed other than that it is "a significant number."

The firefighting managers failed to develop a coherent strategy to fight the fire and protect the surrounding communities and residents, and then they ordered a disjointed evacuation, the residents claim.

"But for blind luck, the pluck of Yarnell's residents and a few fortunate flukes of wind, the firefighting managers would have caused massive deaths," the notices read. Chiefs bungled the effort from start to finish and then "lamely tried to cover up and whitewash their own negligence and intentional wrongdoing," the notices say.

The notices cited the 4-0 vote earlier this month by the Industrial Commission of Arizona to impose $559,000 in penalties against the Arizona Forestry Division for its handling and oversight of the fire.

The notices also underscored the emotional damage residents suffered, describing the hasty evacuation of that day, with burning embers raining down on terrified residents and heat so intense that vehicle tires exploded. "Swirling, choking smoke blanketed Yarnell, blotting out the sun, turning day into night, and making it almost impossible to breathe or to see where to walk or to drive," the notices read.

George DeLange, whose home in nearby Glen Ilah was destroyed, narrowly escaped. He is seeking $750,000 each from Yavapai County, the state, Prescott and the Yarnell Fire District. If those entities agreed to pool their resources, he would accept $750,000 total, according to the notice of claim.

DeLange, a 73-year-old retiree, started the foundation on his new home on Friday. He lost everything in the fire, including original paintings and sculptures, family photographs and heirlooms. The claim won't bring those back, he said, though any money they collect would help with the financial stress he and his family have endured.

"I think the whole thing was mishandled from the very beginning when the fire started," he said. "Because of that, I just feel that someone there should be responsible in my case for whatever losses I sustained. My own personal opinion is those deaths that occurred never should have happened to begin with."

Republic reporters Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Anne Ryman contributed to this article.

By Kristina Goetz, The Republic

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