Clark residents question fire report - Power company presents results of investigation

CODY — The Clark community is at odds with an investigative report it was presented regarding the cause of a fatal wildfire that occurred in November.

A public meeting discussing the cause of a deadly November wildfire in Clark left attendees with more questions than answers on Thursday night.

Beartooth Electric hosted the meeting and presented the results of an investigation performed and paid for by its insurance carrier, Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange. That investigator determined Beartooth Electric was not at fault for starting the Louis L’Amour Fire.

“This was a high wind event, our system held up really well,” said Kevin Owens, general manager for Beartooth Electric. “We didn’t have an outage that night.”

Nate Hoffert, Clark Fire District chief, said his department conducted its own investigation that will be released in the next month and include costs of the fire, a sum he said reaches into the millions of dollars. He said he could not provide any details about his department’s findings, but did say there are aspects of their report that conflict with what was presented on Thursday night.

A member of Clark Fire originally reported that a downed power line was the source of the fire. Owens said this power line never came down, and the investigative report also determined a branch about five feet away from the line did not cause the fire. The report did not determine the cause of the fire and will not be released to the public.

“I was very specifically told it couldn’t be distributed,” Owens said.

A total of three homes, seven outbuildings and a bridge on Gunpowder Road were destroyed in the 300-acre fire that hit the lower Line Creek area, about five miles northwest from Clark.

Clark resident Cindy Ruth also died in the blaze. Her husband, Jerry Ruth, is a volunteer member of the Clark Fire District, and was fighting the fire when she died. He said the past few months have been “rough” and “quite a stretch” for him in his mourning.

“I think they’re off-base with what they are saying,” he said of the report, looking down at his hands for most of the meeting. “I see between the lines on that.”

Owens said winds on the night of the Nov. 15 fire reached 140 mph with unofficial reports made of 156 mph at the top of Grove Creek. The quickly accelerating growth of the fire created incredibly hot temperatures within the blaze, traveling in an unpredictable path due to rapid changes in wind direction. Near the area where the fire was believed to have started to the north of Louis L’Amour Lane, there are burn marks to trees on both sides of a small creek, but these burn marks are on the outside of the trees facing away from the creek, showing that the fire burned in a circular, not linear fashion.

“Depending where you were located, it was a hell of a night,” Owens said.

The fire was originally suspected to have started to the south of Louis L’Amour Lane, where a cottonwood tree stands near a Beartooth Electric power line. Owens said a tree limb was found there with a charred end, yet there was no sign of burn on the ground surrounding it. The closest burn area was almost 150 feet away, Owens said, a finding he described as “very odd.”

“The largest energy content you have there is the limb,” he said. “Anything that should start the fire on the ground, it should’ve been that limb that was up there smoldering.”

Owens said the part of the tree that the limb had been connected to, about 42 feet in the air, was identified where it had burned off. It was the finding of the investigator, Owens said, that “there was not enough energy from that limb and the embers from” the burned area to travel 150 feet and start the fire.

“The largest energy content that you have there is the limb,” Owens said. “(If) anything should start a fire on the ground, it should have been that limb smoldering.”

Beartooth hires Asplundh Tree Expert Company to trim all trees in close proximity to its power lines.

“Now, range fires are more important to deal with from the tree trimming aspect to keep the lights on,” Owens said, describing himself as “scared as hell” regarding the upcoming fire season due to the low moisture this winter.

Clark resident Bonnie Craig, who owns a home with her husband near the mouth of the Clarks Fork, said they have taken down all the trees and vegetation around their home out of fear of the fire risks.

Even though workers from the company trimmed other trees in the Line Creek area about four to six weeks prior to the fire, the cottonwood did not receive service.

“We went back and asked them, ‘Why didn’t you trim the tree?’” Owens said. “That’s a judgment call on their part.”

Owens said he had no interest in arguing for or against the results of the investigation or to “change anybody’s mind,” and said the purpose of the meeting was purely to deliver the findings. He said the forensic fire investigator performed the study 15 days after the fire over the course of one morning, but also solicited a number of witness statements.

Owens did present an alternate possible cause of the fire, an ash bucket that was found in closer proximity to the burn markings.

“It was curious,” he said.

The attorney representing Beartooth, Henry Bailey of Cheyenne, did not return Enterprise requests to speak to the fire investigator. Despite delivering a PowerPoint presentation to the public on Thursday, Owens would not turn over a digital copy of this presentation to the Enterprise.

Owens said wind caught charred debris left from the fire and caused damage to their system, with a piece of corrugated steel from a fire-burned outbuilding recently smashing into one of their transformers.

“That’s the residents’ responsibility for keeping their property clean,” Owens said.

Not a single member of the roughly 70 attendees at the Clark Pioneer Recreation Center spoke up expressing support for the results of the investigative report.

“Your investigator’s report was faulty,” said Dave Hoffert, a member of Clark Fire Department and Nate Hoffert’s father. “That investigation is absolutely not accurate. I for one can personally testify to some of the statements that are wrong.

“You, Beartooth, need to know the truth. Not the opinion of one very young investigator.”

Dave Hoffert said at least one third to half of the report was inaccurate and asked for assurance Beartooth would seek out further investigation. Owens would not guarantee this and said he was not aware of any plan to seek a second opinion on the report. However, he did say he would pass on the request to Federated.

The Clark Fire report may add much more to the discussion of what started the November blaze.

“Hopefully the Clark Fire report will tell that,” Ruth said.

Ruth said he is currently exploring his legal options.

A number of residents requested that Beartooth install more below-ground cables.

“When you’re dealing with higher voltages – the 50,000 volts – it gets very, very costly,” Owens said, reiterating there were no power outages the night of the fire.