Taylor Bridge Fire caused by construction crews, investigation finds

Ridgefield-based contractor was working on bridge replacement project in Central Washington

By Eric Florip and Paul Suarez

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Updated: December 17, 2012, 8:07 PM

 
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Taylor Bridge Fire report

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A few missteps by a Ridgefield-based contractor and subcontractor from the Puget Sound area most likely led to a wildfire that scorched more than 23,000 acres and destroyed 61 homes and hundreds of other structures in August, state officials said Monday.

The Taylor Bridge Fire cost an estimated $11.1 million to fight and took more than two weeks to control.

According to a state Department of Natural Resources report released Monday, the contractors were welding and sawing at a bridge replacement site past a 1 p.m. safety cutoff time designated by DNR due to the extreme fire hazard created by hot, dry weather. Crews were not adequately trained and fire suppression equipment was not sufficient to meet needs when the fire started on Aug. 13, said Bryan Flint, DNR spokesman.

According to the report, Patrick Freeburg, an employee of Ridgefield-based Conway Construction Inc., was welding and wire-brushing steel plates and beams beneath the deck of the Bristol Fill Bridge, which carries state Highway 10 across a dry, brush-filled canyon east of Cle Elum, in Kittitas County. Conway had a contract to rebuild the bridge deck. Taylor Road is near the bridge.

Nearby, an unidentified worker with subcontractor Rainier Steel was cutting steel rebar with a hot saw on top of the deck.

One or both of those activities most likely sparked the fire, according to the report.

The area was in the midst of a prolonged dry spell, and temperatures had already climbed above 80 degrees just after 1 p.m., according to the investigation.

DNR spokesman Flint said a Conway employee drove a water truck to the site of the fire, but didn’t know how to operate its water sprayers. One employee was unable to find a fire extinguisher and grabbed a personal one from his truck, Flint said. A supervisor arrived on the scene a few minutes later and got the sprayers going. But the truck ran out of water before the fire was extinguished, the report said.

Crews should have been trained to use the water truck and the company should have had fire extinguishers that were “up to the job,” Flint said.

“There was no evidence that precautions were taken by either the contractor or subcontractor prior to the cutting and welding activity (that could have prevented hot materials from igniting material below the bridge),” the report said. According to the report, Conway Superintendent Greg Ross said he didn’t think any of the construction crew was trained to use the water truck to suppress fire.

Washington State Department of Transportation project inspector Wilberto Otero, who was on scene, called 911 about five minutes after the fire started. By that time, it was already about 15 feet in diameter, the report said.

Firefighters from Kittitas County Fire District 1 arrived on scene 11 minutes after Otero reported the fire. DNR crews arrived about 15 minutes later.

By 2:15 p.m. the fire jumped the state highway and “burned with increasing size and intensity” away from its origin, the report said.

The Taylor Bridge Fire wasn’t the first to occur on the job site. Crews had quickly extinguished at least two earlier small fires, but didn’t report them to state or local authorities, the investigation found.

Flint said DNR is not planning to issue any citations.

“We will be seeking recovery for the (DNR’s) costs for fighting the fire,” he said, which is about half of the $11 million total firefighting cost. The agency will work with the Attorney General’s Office to see where those funds should come from. No decision has been made at this point, Flint said.

The purpose of the investigation wasn’t to assign blame; it was to find the fire’s origin, he said. Litigation will determine who is responsible, Flint said.

WSDOT spokesman Steve Pierce said in an e-mail that the agency is reviewing the investigation and its legal options to recover money for infrastructure, including roads and guardrails, damaged in the fire. WSDOT had hired Conway in April to do the work.

WSDOT requires contractors carry insurance to cover claims related to project failures, he said. Pierce believes Conway and the subcontractor carried insurance up to $9 million.

Conway’s attorney couldn’t be reached for comment.

Conway and Rainier Steel have been sued at least twice already for damages related to the fire, according to Kittitas County Superior Court records. Both cases are pending.