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Malden, Pine City families sue Avista alleging negligence led to wildfire

Doug Nadvornick/SPR
About 80% of homes in the town of Malden were destroyed in a fire in September of 2020.

Residents of Malden and Pine City are suing Avista Utilities, arguing the company did not address a damaged tree, which led to a wildfire that destroyed their homes and businesses.

The 2020 Babb Road fire burned more than 15,000 acres and destroyed roughly 80 % of the buildings in the town of Malden, and much of the unincorporated community of Pine City.

A Washington State Department of Natural Resources investigation into the cause of the fire determined it was a fallen branch from a Ponderosa Pine tree near a powerline. The tree had been damaged by both insects and weather. The fire was fueled by high winds and low humidity.

In the past Avista, the company that operates the powerline, has argued that the tree was outside its maintenance right-of-way, and high winds were more likely to blame than equipment or vegetation management practices.

John Allison, an attorney representing families from Malden and Pine City, says the company could have done more.

“There's obviously a very large amount of trees in our community, we recognize that,” he said. “Most powerlines have trees around them, the critical point is that utilities have a duty to look for, inspect and monitor for defective and diseased trees.”

The lawsuit did not include a specified a dollar amount for damages. Attorney Shawn Cain said the eventual payout should be large, addressing emotional distress and the cost of rebuilding.

“Most of these people lost their homes, they've been displaced, they're living in other areas, be it trailers and they've never been able to rebuild because some, if not many were uninsured as well,” he said.

Annie Gannon, a spokesperson for Avista said in a statement Wednesday that the company has not yet seen the lawsuit, but has been supportive of recovery efforts in Malden and Pine City, and will cooperate in any legal processes.

"Since the initial restoration efforts began immediately following the fire," Gannon wrote, "Avista has served as a steady supporter, facilitating connections, helping to build capacity, convening people and organizations and much more that has contributed to the community’s ability to access funding and move toward rebuilding in tangible ways."

Reporter's note: John Allison and Melanie Rose, a manager at Avista, are both members of Spokane Public Radio's board of directors.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.