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News / Business / Clark County Business

Renter sues BNSF Railway over July Tunnel Five Fire, says home, belongings destroyed in blaze

Lawsuit alleges railroad's operation caused Skamania County wildfire

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 1, 2024, 6:06am

A renter whose home and belongings were destroyed in the Tunnel Five Fire in July is suing BNSF Railway, alleging its operation caused the wildfire in Skamania County.

Lance Douglas Brooks was one of about 1,000 residents displaced when the fire tore through 500 acres, destroying 10 structures, most of them residences. The fire started July 2 and flamed for days in Underwood, roughly 2 miles west of White Salmon.

The lawsuit and demand for a jury trial was filed Monday in Skamania County Superior Court. Brooks is seeking damages in excess of $100,000.

BNSF did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Brooks’ lawsuit states he was displaced until he found another rental, and he suffered great personal injury, including emotional distress, loss of property and wages, and other out-of-pocket expenses.

The lawsuit alleges a 46-year-old BNSF Railway locomotive, as well as failure to maintain the tracks and adjacent land and vegetation, caused the fire.

“The irresponsible actions of BNSF Railway jeopardized lives, destroyed homes and exhausted the resources of the entire surrounding region,” Brooks’ attorney, Gerald Singleton of fire litigation firm Singleton Schreiber, said in a news release. “Lance’s out-of-pocket costs were extremely high, and the only reason he had to leave his home was BNSF’s negligence. The railway must be held accountable, and our lawsuit seeks to do just that.”

According to an article from Columbia Insight published in September, a state Department of Natural Resources preliminary wildfire investigation report traced the cause of the blaze to debris from brakes and particles from a BNSF locomotive.

“No probable evidence of another human fire cause was located in the origin areas,” an excerpt of the report published in Columbia Insight said.

The Tunnel Five Fire was not the first fire in that location. In 2007, the Broughton Fire burned 200 acres and seven structures in the same area. The Broughton Fire was caused by BNSF crews grinding the nearby railroad tracks, creating sparks. The process is used to repair deformities and corrosion of the tracks after heavy use.

“Additionally, BNSF track maintenance activities had ignited two other fires in the same vicinity just five and eight days earlier,” the DNR report states. “These two track maintenance fires occurred during hours of darkness when temperatures would have been cooler and humidity higher. A localized fire danger along the tracks in this general area should have been known to BNSF.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer