PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Victims of last year’s devastating Beachie Creek Fire are suing an Oregon power company for alleged negligence that cost some families everything they owned.
The Beachie Creek Fire burned more than 193,000 acres east of Salem, destroyed entire communities, hundreds of homes and left a handful of people dead. The fire was first reported in mid-August and was roughly 500 acres in size when historic winds turned it into a Labor Day firestorm.
Those winds, in excess of 75 miles per hour, caused the fire to grow by 130,000 acres in one 24-hour period according to the final incident report from the U.S. Forest Service. According a pair of lawsuits filed on behalf of people who lost homes that night, the wind also knocked down power lines owned by PacifiCorp, sparking several additional fires along the Santiam River.
It’s been six months since Rick Thomas and his wife Ute narrowly escaped the fire as it bore down on their home in Lyons on Labor Day. Rick said he still has trouble sleeping through the night.
“I looked out the door of the master bedroom that goes onto the deck and there were embers coming down as big as baseballs,” an emotional Rick recalled on Thursday. “We had about five minutes to get out of the house. Everything was on fire around it. So we got in my pickup and took off and the road was on fire on the sides as we were leaving; driving down the road and trees on fire and everything. You’re just wondering if you’re going to make it.”
The couple had no time to get their animals. They lost five chickens and the six cats they were fostering, including one cat with three kittens. The couple, who will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary on Friday, also lost important documents and irreplaceable heirlooms in the fire, including their marriage certificate. They estimate they lost between $300,000 and $400,000 worth of property, sentimental items and heirlooms.
Their home of nearly 25 years was destroyed. Rick said it was their “dream house” and they hope to eventually rebuild but financing the project is a daunting undertaking.
“We’ll find a loan somewhere and rebuild,” Rick said. “I took the insurance money and paid off the mortgage so we could start fresh.”
Rick and Ute spent two months living in a motel before moving into an RV parked on their scorched property. Rick said thinking back to that fateful night is upsetting; they were given no warning, much less an evacuation notice.
Rick is among the roughly 100 victims of the Beachie Creek Fire who believe the blaze was preventable. Two lawsuits filed by Edelson PC and Johnson Johnson Lucas & Middleton on behalf of those victims claim PacifiCorp “failed to safely design, operate and maintain infrastructure which led to the fire.”
The lawsuits also claim the utility company neglected warnings by the National Weather Service about historically strong winds and dry conditions. Those winds, the lawsuits state, knocked down power lines owned, operated and “improperly maintained” by PacifiCorp.
Between a pair of class action lawsuits, the plaintiffs are seeking $1.5 billion.
“I think they should be held accountable,” Rick said. “If they would have turned the power off when it first started way up seven or eight miles above where I live, it probably wouldn’t have come this far.”
In a statement shared with KOIN 6, PacifiCorp said, “As a company policy, we do not comment on pending litigation.”