Ore. Home Owners File Tort Against Fire Departments

The claim said the fire 're-ignited and resulted in additional losses.'


June 11--Two Cornelius-area residents whose home was destroyed in a fire last month have filed a tort claim notice against fire agencies that responded to the blaze.

Esther and Les Miller allege that crews mishandled the fire at their home in the 7400 block of Southwest Hergert Road, which is south of Cornelius. Because of firefighters' actions, the claim says, the fire "reignited and resulted in additional losses."

The Millers are seeking compensation for property damages, wage loss and emotional injuries, according to their June 2 claim. An amount is not specified in the notice, sent by Salem-based attorney Keri Trask Lazarus, who is representing the Millers.

The claim does not specify what firefighters did wrong. Trask Lazarus, reached by phone on Tuesday, declined to provide additional detail.

"My only comment would be, we all respect and appreciate firefighters," Trask Lazarus said. "I think they would be the first to agree that when they make a mistake, they need to be held accountable."

The claim was sent to the following parties: the state, Washington County, Cornelius Fire Department, Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, Gaston Rural Fire District, Banks Fire District, Washington County Fire District 2 and the cities of Cornelius and Forest Grove. A tort claim is the first step to filing a lawsuit against a public body in Oregon.

Crews responded about 2 p.m. on May 15 to the Millers' home and spotted flames and smoke from miles away, Matt Johnston, a Cornelius Fire Department spokesman, said at the time. On the day of the fire, Johnston said crews likely would remain on scene all night to put out hotspots.

Two dogs were safely retrieved from an outside kennel and the residents reportedly weren't home when the fire occurred. No one was injured.

Johnston said the home's location caused challenges for firefighters. The distance from the fire department delayed crews' arrival and getting water to the scene was also difficult.

"It was definitely an uphill battle for us," Johnston said at the time.

Crews, according to Cornelius fire, arrived in about 10 minutes. They shuttled water to the scene from a hydrant in Cornelius, about four miles away.

The home was engulfed in flames when crews arrived and firefighters were initially forced to battle the fast-moving blaze from outside the residence, according to Johnston. The roof eventually collapsed.

About 35 firefighters responded. It took crews about 45 minutes to extinguish most of the flames.

The fire caused about $325,000 in damage and the home was considered a total loss, according to Cornelius fire.

Fire investigators determined that an oil-based wood stain, used on the home's deck, helped spark the fire. The finish was used the day before the blaze. It dropped onto "lightweight natural materials" under the stairs that led to the wooden deck and a chemical reaction later occurred that sparked the flames, Cornelius fire said.

Fire Chief Michael Kinkade, who oversees both the Forest Grove and Cornelius departments, declined to comment on the tort claim.

"Unfortunately, I cannot provide comments on these allegations since it involves pending litigation," Kinkade wrote in an email.

Everton Bailey Jr. of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.

-- Rebecca Woolington

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