The City of Casper intends to appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court a judge’s decision not to impose a $500,000 liability limit for a 2015 blaze that ignited in a city landfill before escaping onto the prairie, where it destroyed homes and killed livestock.
The city has not yet submitted filings to the state’s highest court outlining the issues it intends to contest on appeal from a legal action regarding the five-day Cole Creek fire, which destroyed 14 homes and burned almost 10,000 acres of land. But it did indicate last month that it planned to do so.
The judge’s decision the city cites in appeals paperwork filed in February in Natrona County District Court includes a determination that the city has not yet shown its liability for the fire under Wyoming law is limited to $500,000.
City Attorney John Henley on Friday afternoon said he would not be well-suited to answer questions about the appeal and referred the Star-Tribune to the Wyoming Association of Risk Management, which provides liability coverage for the city. Jay Gilbertz, the association’s attorney, did not immediately respond to a Friday afternoon voicemail requesting comment for this story.
Casper brought a legal request in April 2016, asking a judge to delay legal proceedings concerning liability for the fire until the statute of limitations to file a claim has run out. By the time the two-year time limit expired, 61 property owners had filed claims. The court was then tasked with determining the extent — if any — the city is liable for the destruction caused by the blaze and how to distribute insurance money.
The appeal filed last month will be served to more than 50 interested parties, according to Wyoming Supreme Court filings. A number of people have asked to be removed from the action, which Gilbertz last year attributed to a limited amount of money available under the Governmental Claims Act.
In the January decision cited by the city, Natrona County District Court Judge Catherine Wilking declined to rule that the city would only be liable for a total of $500,000 for all legal claims related to the fire, as the city’s attorneys had argued was required under the law. Although she dismissed a respondent’s argument that the Wyoming Legislature’s hard cap of $500,000 per occurrence is outdated, Wilking said the city has not yet demonstrated the fire was the result of a single occurrence, as defined by state Supreme Court rulings governing the act.
Wilking, in making her ruling, referenced the city’s position that the fire’s cause is still undetermined. The judge said affidavits submitted by the city were “lacking in adequate factual evidence” required for her to make a ruling in the city’s favor. The judge wrote that a city employee’s speculation that the fire could have been ignited by a gas can discovered in the remains of a slash pile, a cigarette butt that may have been thrown in the fire or by spontaneous combustion demonstrates the lack of evidence.
“If there were in fact multiple causes,” Wilking wrote, “can it then be stated that there were multiple accidents or occurrences?”
Wilking, meanwhile, dismissed an argument that the city had violated residents’ Fifth Amendment right preventing the government from taking citizens’ property without just compensation. The judge also dismissed an argument that the act violated unspecified constitutional rights.
The fire ignited in a grinder at the landfill on Oct. 10, 2015. Landfill workers tried twice to extinguish the smoldering debris from the grinder, according to a report produced by the Wyoming Department of Fire Prevention and Electrical Safety. Employees pushed the debris back into the woodchip pile once employees believed it was no longer burning.
However, the debris was still smoldering and ignited wood in the brush pile, according to the report. Firefighters responded and kept watch overnight but lost control of the fire the following afternoon in high winds.
No one died in the fire, but it did kill livestock and pets. Nearly 1,000 people were temporarily displaced by the five-day blaze.