The electrical cooperative serving the West End of Montrose County and surrounding areas has agreed to a $1.27 million settlement over 2010’s Beaver Fire, sparked when high winds propelled trees into its powerline.
The SMPA has denied liability from the fire, which ultimately burned 2,600 acres of Bureau of Land Management- and U.S. Forest Service-administered lands. Under the July 10 settlement, SMPA did not admit wrongdoing and the stipulated agreement dismisses the government’s 2016 suit with prejudice. The agreement resolves civil claims only and does not preclude other types of claims from being raised.
SMPA was unable to immediately provide a comment on the settlement, which the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced in a Thursday news release.
A copy of the agreement states the parties settled the case to avoid continued and expensive litigation over disputed claims.
The settlement “is neither an admission of liability by (SMPA) nor a concession by the United States that its claims are not well-founded. San Miguel Power expressly denies any liability in this matter,” the document states.
“Today’s recovery helps offset the financial cost to the public of fire suppression,” BLM Colorado State Director Jamie Carroll said, in the release. “On behalf of the many firefighters who worked on these and other fires in the West, we appreciate a resolution that benefits the public, the public’s land and the multiple uses public lands support in Colorado.”
The Beaver Fire sparked on May 22, 2010; the government filed suit in 2016, after two letters of demand did not result in the payment it sought.
The complaint said the fire started under a powerline in the San Miguel Special Recreation Management Area, and spread to the Norwood Ranger District of the Uncompahgre National Forest.
An 84-foot-tall cottonwood, that was rotted at its root plate, toppled over in high winds and struck the crown of a shorter tree, which also had rot, and splintered its trunk, knocking it into the line.
The government contended SMPA failed to meet the terms of its right-of-way agreement under which it was required to exercise a “duty of care” that included identifying and removing such hazards, even those that were outside of the right-of-way. The right-of-way agreement makes SMPA fully liable for damage or injury in connection with its use of the right-of-way area, the complaint said.
The USAO accused the power co-op of negligence, breach of contract and trespass, the latter, because the spread of the Beaver Fire onto public lands constituted the “unauthorized use” of those lands.
SMPA said it was not responsible for the forces of nature and that the taller cottonwood was in fact on BLM property outside of SMPA’s right-of-way for the powerline.
The smaller tree displayed no visible signs of rot, SMPA said, and the wind that knocked the trees together “was an act of God.”
If the BLM knew that either tree posed a hazard, the agency was negligent for not addressing it, or notifying SMPA, attorney Daniel Short wrote in the 2017 response to the complaint.
“ … the actual and proximate cause of the Beaver Fire was an act of God, or the fault of the BLM, and not the fault of SMPA,” he said.
Under the recent settlement, each side is to bear its own costs and attorneys’ fees.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.