Valley Fire may result in lawsuits
Man whose fence triggered fire informs numerous agencies they may be sued

A house that burned in last summer’s Valley Fire rebuilds among its charred surroundings in the north Animas Valley. The man whose electric fence was responsible for starting the fire apparently has received word from landowners that he may be sued, and as a preemptive move, has put agencies on notice that they may be party to the suits. /Photo by Todd Newcomer

The property owner responsible for accidentally igniting last summer’s Valley Fire has fired preliminary legal shots at numerous public agencies. An attorney for Falls Creek resident Robert Strachan filed a notice of potential claim informing numerous groups, including the city of Durango and La Plata County, that they could be involved in litigation over the wildfire.

Late in June of last year, the Valley Fire burned 393 acres and destroyed 10 homes in the Falls Creek subdivision and above County Road 203 (West Animas Road). The fire was precariously close to Durango and occurred concurrently with the Missionary Ridge wildfire. Its source was determined to be a recently installed electric fence on Strachan’s Falls Creek property. Part of the fence’s function was weed control, which was accomplished by burning weeds that came in contact with it.

Though the fire was started accidentally, under law the person responsible for starting a fire also can be responsible for the damage it causes. According to La Plata County Attorney Sheryl Rogers, the notice of potential claim mentions that Strachan has received word from a number of property owners that they intend to sue for damages. She said that as a preemptive move, he has given notice to a number of public agencies in case he decides to try to spread the blame for the fire.

“He’s putting the county and others on notice that he may name us as party to the lawsuit,” Rogers said.

Strachan’s attorney Peter Burg kept his comments brief, saying only that Colorado law requires that public agencies be given 180 days notice of potential legal issues. The agencies named in the notice include: La Plata County, the city of Durango, the La Plata County’s Sheriff’s Office, the La Plata County Building Department, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado attorney general, and the Durango Fire and Rescue Authority, among others.

“We’ve opted in an abundance of caution to give notice to these agencies,” Burg said. “At this point in time, nothing has proceeded in a litigation context.”

Currently, there is little local concern about the potential for a successful lawsuit on Strachan’s behalf. Dave Abercombie, spokesman for the Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, said that to level blame at firefighters for the Valley Fire is ludicrous.

“Frankly, I’m not sure how they could blame the fire department,” he said. “We did everything we could to prevent and fight that fire.”

Abercrombie said that the notice of potential claim has generated little impact. “We think we’re on fairly firm ground,” he said. “We’re not overly concerned.”

The city has an even higher level of confidence.

“We’re not making too much of it,” said City Manager Bob Ledger. “We think it’s part of the shotgun approach the attorneys are taking.”

Ledger said that the city is particularly immune to litigation not simply because it had no involvement in the fire, but because it has had no involvement in the Falls Creek area.

“How the city of Durango could be implicated in something that happened 10 miles outside our city limits is beyond me,” said Ledger. “We don’t even have water and sewer service out there.”

Rogers said that the county will become concerned if it is actually named as party to the suit. Whether any of the agencies will actually be involved in a lawsuit with Strachan will be determined by Strachan and his attorney this spring.






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