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

Forest Service asks for dismissal of Freres suit

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

The U.S. Forest Service has asked for the dismissal of a $33 million federal lawsuit by Freres Engineered Wood over the 2020 Santiam Fire, alleging the company’s claims have no legal footing.

In a motion filed March 19 in U.S. District Court in Eugene, USFS said the historic wildfire presented many challenges that made suppression efforts difficult or impossible.

They said, in these complex situations, USFS is empowered by law to make judgment calls about how to deploy resources, and that these decisions are protected from litigation.

The agency asked for the suit to be dismissed “for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.” Freres has been given until April 5 to file their response to the motion.

The company filed suit Jan. 3, claiming USFS negligently failed to deploy firefighting resources as the Beachie Creek fire approached the region starting in August of 2020. By Sept. 7, 2020, high heat and wind conditions intensified the fire, while damaged PacifiCorp power lines caused numerous spot fires elsewhere in the Santiam Canyon.

The resulting wildfire burned more than 400,000 acres, destroyed roughly 1,500 structures and killed five people.

In its motion, USFS said the Beachie Creek Fire, which was first spotted Aug 16, 2020, was difficult to combat from the outset due to “rugged and steep terrain.” Deploying ground crews was determined to be “infeasible” and they used aerial water drops as visibility conditions allowed.

When gale-force winds were forecast for Sept. 7, 2020, USFS said it initially expected the fire to remain within wilderness areas, but the storm was “worse than anticipated.” Its ground crews encamped in Gates were forced to evacuate after a downed power line sparked a fire that burned the camp, and regrouped outside the fire area.

Freres claims USFS was not aggressive enough in its initial suppression efforts and missed its window of opportunity to contain the Beachie Creek before weather conditions deteriorated. They cited statements from helicopter crews who were grounded during low visibility who allegedly claimed they could have turned the fire “into a bud hole” if they were allowed to fly.

In its motion, USFS said there is no policy requiring a particular quantity or frequency of air drops to suppress a wildfire, and that aerial drops alone were unlikely to extinguish the fire. They also said grounding flight crews was not a simple decision and involved considering weather conditions, flight-time limits, mechanical issues and competing resources.

The agency further argued the actions of its employees are protected by law, even if there are facts in dispute, and said on these grounds alone Freres’ claims should be thrown out.

A hearing to consider the motion had yet to be set as of press time. Parties have been given until June 3 to reach potential out-of-court settlements, after which they must submit proposed guidelines and timetables for a trial.

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