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
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.