Sept. 16–A 64-year-old man who is accused of napping while his campfire spread to start a 200-acre forest fire could have to foot the$892,000 bill of extinguishing the Southern Oregon blaze.
That’s the goal of the state of Oregon, which this week filed suit against Joe Thurmond Askins — as well as his wife and stepdaughter, Martha Havlicek-Askins and Ashley Martha Myers. The suit accuses them of building the campfire in July 2014 despite a ban set in place because of extremely dry conditions.
The state also this week filed a $3.6 million lawsuit against an Eastern Oregon rancher who investigators say negligently drove a utility vehicle across fields of bone-dry grass — igniting what became a 2,700-acre wildfire in Grant County in August 2014.
According to that second lawsuit, rancher John Lee Habberstad should have known that the exhaust system on his utility vehicle posed a fire hazard because it reached temperatures of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The pair of lawsuits — totaling $4.5 million — should serve as a public reminder that state officials can and will go after people who they believe carelessly or maliciously set wildfires.
The Oregon Department of Forestry says about two-thirds of wildfires are started by humans. The other third is caused by lightning.
The state is required by law to try to recover wildfire-fighting costs, said Jeff Bonebrake, the department’s investigation and cost recovery coordinator. That includes the costs of helicopters, bulldozers and paying and feeding firefighters.
Bonebrake said he has more than 100 open cases and, by far, most of them settle before the state gets to the point of filing lawsuits. Often, the settlements are paid out by insurance companies, but they also can be paid out by individuals via their personal savings or assets, Bonebrake said.
Among cases in which the state has sought payback:
–In August 2016, the state said it would bill two men $37 million for causing the 26,000-acre Stouts Creek fire, which burned west of Crater Lake National Park for a month in summer 2015. The men started the fire by using lawnmowers during the afternoon, despite a ban on such activity, officials say.
–In July 2015, the state filed a $13,800 lawsuit against a 16-year-old boy, who shot fireworks out of a moving car, sparking a 1.6 acre wildfire in Lane County in July 2008.
–In 2014, a judge ordered a 23-year-old Warm Springs woman to pay $7.9 million after she was criminally convicted of igniting more than 51,000 acres to give her “bored” firefighter friends something to do in July 2013.
–A judge ordered five men to pay $17,000 after they shot explosives, causing a 38-acre wildfire east of Bend in August 2012.
None of the defendants listed in this week’s lawsuits could be reached for comment.
The Southern Oregon lawsuit accuses the three campers of building a campfire ring out of rocks in Klamath County on July 25, 2014. Although the group was on their own private land, the ban on campfires still applied to them, the suit states.
The suit states that Askins was napping while the other two members of his family went to a store. Askins reportedly told investigators “I’ll take all the blame for the fire,” according to the suit.
In October 2014, Askins was charged in state circuit court with the crime of misdemeanor reckless burning, but the following month he failed to appear for a hearing, according to court records. A judge issued a warrant for his arrest, which still appears to be active.
Askins lives in Nevada along with his wife and stepdaughter, according to his court file. He wrote a letter to the Klamath County district attorney a month after the warrant was issued pleading for the case to be dropped.
Askin wrote that he is a retired naval officer whose career includes combat during the Vietnam War. He said he doesn’t think he committed any crime, and described the wildfire as an “unfortunate act of nature.”
Askins said that agreeing to any plea deal would open him the possibility of a civil suit that could cost him “big bucks” and that his wife could be left making payments even after he dies.
“I am sure as an attorney you could see this is an ‘insult to justice,'” Askins wrote District Attorney Rob Patridge.
In this week’s other lawsuit, the state claims that Habberstad, the rancher, was a part owner of China Peak Ranch in Grant County.
The suit alleges that he should have known the danger of driving his 2013 Honda Big Red utility vehicle across large portions of the ranch, starting at about 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2014.
Dry weeds or grass snagged on the vehicle’s exhaust system, and at about 1 p.m., smoldering debris fell from the vehicle onto some 2-foot-tall grass Habberstad drove across, according to the suit. It started the “Lost Hubcap Road Fire,” south of the town of Monument, the suit states.
Habberstad wasn’t charged with any crimes, according to court records.
In addition to Habberstad, the state is suing his ranch.
Read the lawsuits filed in Klamath County and Grant County circuit courts.
— Aimee Green
(c)2016 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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