News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

First responders deny wrongdoing in wildfire deaths

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

Local first responders have denied wrongdoing in lawsuits filed by the families of four individuals who died during wildfire evacuations in 2020.

Stayton Fire District, Marion County and METCOM told the court they cannot be held liable for harm because the agencies took all required precautions to warn residents of fire danger and could not ultimately control the behavior or cause of the fires.

The two lawsuits were filed in September 2021, by the families of Peggy Mosso, 71, and her grandson Wyatt Tofte, 13, and Cathy Cook, 71, and her son Justin Cook, 41, who perished in the Santiam Fire complex. Also named as defendants are Consumers Power, Inc., and Pacificorp, who denied wrongdoing in court filings last year.

The family of Mosso and Tofte is seeking $102 million, while the family of the Cooks is seeking $40 million. In both suits, the plaintiffs are represented by Portland attorney John Coletti.

The remains of Mosso and Tofte were found Sept. 9, 2020, at their home along North Fork Rd. SE, east of Lyons. Tofte’s parents and Mosso’s daughter and son-in-law, Angela Mosso and Christopher Tofte, have filed suit on their behalf.

The remains of Cathy and Justin Cook were found Sept. 13, 2020, at their home, also along North Fork Rd. SE. Cathy Cook’s son and Justin Cook’s brother, Travis Cook, has filed suit on their behalf.

The lawsuits claim that Consumers Power, Inc., and Pacificorp failed to de-energize local power lines prior to the spread of the fire, despite warnings of high winds and dry conditions from the National Weather Service Sept. 6, 2020. Power lines damaged by the winds ultimately caused spot fires that contributed to the intensity of the complex, the suit alleges.

Consumers Power, Inc. and Pacificorp have denied wrongdoing, claiming among other defenses the fire complex was already intense before the spot fires caused by the power lines, and plaintiffs did not demonstrate a direct link between harm to the deceased and the spot fires.

The suits further alleged that the Marion County Sheriff’s Office knew hours in advance of a mandatory evacuation order that conditions in the path of the wildfire were life-threatening, and their failure to act promptly contributed to the deaths in question. The suit also noted the mandatory evacuation order was initially published on Facebook, which became inaccessible after fire damage had cut power and cell service to their neighborhood.

The suit similarly claims METCOM and Stayton Fire District should have done more, sooner to warn residents of fire risk and notify them of evacuations.

The county, METCOM and the fire district have denied they acted negligently, pointing out the voluntary evacuation warning issued before the mandatory evacuation made clear that further warning may not be received if conditions deteriorate. They also argued the lightning-caused fires that sparked the complex were not the fault of emergency responders, and the exceptional intensity of the disaster was an “act of God” and could not have been foreseen.

The agencies further argued that all required wildfire protocols were followed, and because of this they are shielded from liability. They additionally noted that Oregon tort law caps non-economic damages at $5 million, so the damages sought by plaintiffs far exceed what the law allows.

Marion County is represented by Salem attorney Andrew Campbell, while Stayton Fire District and METCOM are represented by Portland attorney Karen O’Kasey. 

The suits were filed in Multnomah County, and a request to transfer them to Marion County was denied on the grounds that the Portland area is centrally located for most parties in the suits.

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