Investigators: Railroad pledges more fire safety following investigation



Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

Posted on July 21, 2010 at 10:51 PM

The wildfire season is upon us and the state's largest railroad has some new fire prevention rules in place.

That's after the KING 5 Investigators revealed that railroads, mostly Burlington Northern Santa Fe, have sparked hundreds of wildfires in our state.

One of them swept through the Columbia River Gorge in 2007, near White Salmon. Residents of six homes escaped with their lives, but nothing else.

Three years later, Ben and Lila Bush still have no home to call their own.

“I’m numb. That’s the way I feel,” said Lila Bush as she and her elderly husband stared at the burned-out foundation of what used to be their home.

Investigators only had to look as far as the nearby railroad tracks, where a maintenance machine called a grinder had just passed. It was showering sparks on a humid, windy summer day.

Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce has tried, unsuccessfully, to ban grinding during the fire season.

"For some reason it always seems to be mid-summer they come through this part of the line," said Pearce.

The KING 5 Investigators analyzed state firefighting records and found that railroads, mostly Burlington Northern Santa Fe, were listed as the cause for at least 234 wildfires across Washington in the last 10 years.

The fires have a variety of causes, such as sparks from train brakes or smokestacks,  in addition to rail maintenance.

This fire season, Burlington Northern tells the KING 5 Investigators, things will be different.

Since our original story aired last year, the state's largest rail company says it's ordered more fire training for crews. They'll have more firefighting equipment on hand. And there will be no more grinding in hot temperatures and high winds, when the fire danger is high.

"I don't trust them," said Lori Olson of Ritzville, outside Spokane.

She has good reason for her doubts. The fires we uncovered all occurred after 1998. That's the year flames from a Burlington Northern fire scorched her family farm and a combine, killing the man inside, Lori's father Robert Heider.

She's heard promises from the company before.

"I want to know who will be policing that, to make sure they are going to follow their own rules," says Olson.

Our investigation found several large fires sparked by questionable conduct from Burlington Northern. However, the company's never been cited by state investigators, although BNSF did pay the cost of fighting the fires.

The Bushes say they were forced to sue the railroad because it hasn't paid the full costs of their losses.

And Lori Olson lost something she'll never get back – her father.

“There's just an overwhelming sadness that hits me when I hear that train whistle," she says.

Both Burlington Northern and the Department of Natural Resources say railroads have not sparked any fires so far this season.