Judge Dismisses $48M Negligence Suit Against BIA Over Wildfire

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BIA Wildfire Negligence Suit

A federal judge in Washington state on Wednesday tossed a ranch’s $48 million negligence lawsuit alleging the Bureau of Indian Affairs is liable for damages from a 2020 wildfire, ruling that agreements between the bureau and a Native American tribe did not spell out a specific firefighting duty.

Townsend Ranch LLC argued the U.S. Department of the Interior and the BIA’s contracts with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation made the federal government liable for a fire that broke out at a sawmill controlled by the tribe. The suit sought to put the feds on the hook for what it described as negligence of tribal employees and their failure to suppress burning leaves and tree limbs at a mill owned by a tribal company before the smoldering slash pile grew into a wildfire.

In siding with the BIA, U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice determined that a contract between the bureau and the Confederated Tribes stated the tribe’s responsibility was to manage the health of forest lands on its reservation and generate revenue from harvested lumber.