Cole Creek Fire

Heavy smoke from the Cole Creek Fire rises along Metro Road on Oct. 11, 2015 near Evansville. The fire destroyed 14 homes and charred 10,000 acres.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

At least three families whose homes or property were destroyed in the Cole Creek Fire filed counterclaims against the city of Casper, alleging it is liable for the 2015 blaze.

The three claims, which are effectively lawsuits against the city, were filed in response to the city’s request that a Natrona County District Court judge make a ruling on whether the city is liable for the fire that began Oct. 10, 2015, in the municipal landfill. The fire eventually escaped the landfill, and over the next few days, it burned about 10,000 acres of rural Evansville, destroyed 14 homes and killed livestock and pets.

Each of the three counterclaims — filed between November 2016 and April 2017 — seeks compensation for damaged property. One asks for at least $100,000, another for $68,661 and the third for an unspecified amount. None of the attorneys for the families returned calls for comment.

In a claim filed on behalf of a family whose trailer was destroyed and land was scorched, attorney Leif Distad wrote that “the Cole Creek Fire and the resulting damages were proximately caused by the negligent acts and omissions of public employees of the City of Casper, acting within the scope of their official duties.”

In his responses to the claims, the city’s former attorney for the matter, Craig Silva, broadly denied the allegations or stated that there was not enough information to admit or deny them. In one response, he stated that the cause of the fire is disputed. Casper City Manager Carter Napier declined to comment on behalf of the city because he said he knew little about the case, which was filed before he took his current position this summer.

State fire inspectors concluded that sparks from a grinder ignited a nearby slash pile. Landfill workers attempted to extinguish the fire, first with water and then by stomping on it. The employees pushed the debris back into the woodchip pile after believing they had extinguished it. They were wrong, however, and the still-smoldering debris lit the wood on fire. The next day, the fire spread from the landfill during high winds.

The report determined the fire was an accident, but did not address whether any of the employees acted negligently. A fire investigator with the state’s Fire Prevention Department previously told the Star-Tribune: “Obviously, there was a little bit of negligence there.”

The suits are separate from the individuals’ claims filed with the city’s insurer, the Wyoming Association of Risk Management. The deadline to file those claims is Oct. 11, the two-year anniversary of the fire spreading from the landfill.

So far, victims have filed 48 claims related to the Cole Creek Fire, said Joe Constantino, the association’s executive director. The total dollar amount of the claims was not readily available, he said.

After that deadline passes, the court decision regarding the city’s liability will move forward, said Sheridan attorney Jay Gilbertz, who took over the case from Silva and is now representing the city. He declined to comment further on the counterclaims because he would not have time to review the case in time for the Star-Tribune’s deadline.

If Judge Catherine Wilking rules that the city is liable, she will also decide how to distribute the payments, which are capped at a total of $500,000 under the state’s Governmental Claims Act. The original document asking for the court’s decision named about two dozen households affected by the fire, but the city filed an amended version in March that included a total of 40 households and businesses.

Silva succinctly explained the issue in his original court filing:

“In aggregate, the claims exceed $500,000 and are believed to be in the millions of dollars. Equally, the City of Casper is obligated to pay out claims on the $500,000 if liability is determined. How to determine who gets what amount and whether the claim is legitimate presents herculean problems where the claims are significant and the fund is finite.”

Follow features editor Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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Star-Tribune reporter Elise Schmelzer covers criminal justice.

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