Investigators: Analysis finds hundreds of WA fires sparked by railroads



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Posted on November 4, 2009 at 11:55 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 4 at 4:19 PM

They are fires that sent people running for their lives. One man didn't get away.

The wildfires came from the railroad tracks.

It's a problem serious enough that legislators tried to tackle it with new regulations earlier this year. Now, a KING 5 Investigation finds hundreds of fires in Washington State sparked by the railroads.

"There was a deck over there and windows were there," says Lela Bush as she surveys what's left of her home in White Salmon, along the Columbia River Gorge. The home her 91-year-old husband Ben built with his own hands is gone. Only a concrete foundation remains. "I'm numb", says Lela. "That's the way I feel."

Video from the Skamania county sheriff's office shows home owners scurrying for their lives in 2007 as a wildfire engulfed six houses including the Bush home. Investigators determined the flames came from the tracks near the bush home where the railroad was run a rail maintenance machine known as a "grinder", which sprays sparks along the railroad tracks, on a dry and windy day.

These kinds of wildfires are more common than anyone who lives near the thousands of miles of rail line in Washington State would like to think.

In State firefighting databases the KING 5 investigators found 234 fires across Washington in the past decade attributed to the railroads. A third of them, 63 fires, were sparked in western Washington. Most did little damage, but 42 fires, scorched two acres or more.

At least one of those fires claimed something that couldn't be replaced, a beloved family farmer named Robert Heider. 'We couldn't have an open casket because his body had been damaged so bad,' says Heider's daughter, Lori Olson.

Robert Heider died in 1998 working his Spokane wheat field. His combine was surrounded by flames from a Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail project.

Back then, the company promised a safety overhaul. But our findings call to mind an old railroading term for Lori Olson; back-tracking. "That's what's frustrating to me. If Dad had to die, let's make sure something good comes out of this," says Olson.

Lori Olson doesn't believe the State's been aggressive enough in stopping railroad fires. KING 5 examined investigative reports on file with the Department of Natural Resources. They were reports on large fires that happened after Robert Heider's death. Although DNR investigators often found questionable conduct by railroads, not once was the railroad cited for a violation.

DNR's head of wildfire prevention says to issue a citation the railroad's conduct must rise to the level of a criminal violation. "We would need to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the railroad acted deliberately, intentionally and recklessly," says Joe Shramek, DNR's resource protection division manager.

DNR investigated the Broughton Mill fire, which torched the Bush home. In that case, the grinder was caught on video sparking other small fires before Broughton flared up. But the crew kept grinding as winds that day gusted up to 55 miles per hour. Later, the grinder's foreman initially refused to answer questions from DNR investigators. Yet Burlington Northern, and it's contractor, were not cited.

Shramek says railroads are getting the message that fires they cause are not being taken lightly and he says proof of that is the steep drop in railroad fires since the 1970's.

A spokesperson says Burlington Northern Santa Fe made enormous investments in new engines and brakes that throw off fewer sparks. "We have the newest locomotive fleet in the industry," says BNSF's Gus Melonas. He also says that those fearsome-looking grinders are required to keep the track smooth and safe. They're equipped with water tankers and other firefighting gear. As an added measure, the railroad says it posts a fire watch along freshly ground rails. "We invest everyday through technology, through training, through equipment to make sure we aren't starting fires," says Melonas. "It's not in our interest to start fires."

Railroads do face tremendous liability from fires, but they may lose even more money if maintenance delays keep the freight from rolling.

Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce says he was once told by Burlington Northern, "A million dollars a minute…is what they earn on this railway." That's why Pearce thinks BNSF would risk grinding on a dry and windy day in his county, as happened with the Broughton Mill fire. "We certainly live with that every year,' says Pearce of the grinders coming through the county during the summer months. "It causes a lot of fear, it causes a lot of anxiety."