RENO — Homeowners can proceed with an $80 million lawsuit against the state that accuses Nevada forestry officials of negligently handling a controlled burn that raged out of control and destroyed 23 homes last fall, a judge ruled.
Washoe County District Court Judge Scott Freeman denied the state’s motion this week to dismiss the lawsuits stemming from the fire that raged out of control in the Washoe Valley along the Sierra’s eastern front between Carson City and Reno in October 2016.
Ken Lyon, one of the homeowners’ lawyers, told the Reno Gazette-Journal on Thursday it means they will get a chance to prove their case in court.
The homeowners say they suffered more than $80 million in damages and contend the government illegally took over their property and left it “valueless and virtually unusable” because the state Division of Forestry failed to properly supervise the controlled burn, according to their lawsuit.
The state has argued the fire was accidental and that, while a tragedy, the homeowners should only be entitled to compensation for unintentional damage, not for the “taking” of private property.
The lawsuits say fire crews started the controlled burn Oct. 4, 2016, in Whittell Forest land owned by the University of Nevada, Reno despite a storm with wind gusts in excess of 80 mph that was forecast to roll in three days later. The prescribed burn was intended to reduce fuel loads and ease future fire risks.
The operation was suspended Oct. 7 as the weather worsened, and crews thought the smoldering fire had safely been extinguished. But a week later, high winds carried rekindled embers along the Carson Range and ignited the catastrophic wildfire.
Nevada State Forester Joe Freeland resigned in April after an independent investigation into the handling of the wildfire in Washoe Valley north of Carson City concluded that state crews were understaffed in their manning of the smoldering burn despite repeated warnings about unstable, windy weather.