RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Aug. 17 update:
A Washoe District Court jury has bound the Nevada Division of Forestry liable for starting the Little Valley Fire, but let the University of Nevada, Reno off the hook.
Was the man in charge of a controlled burn in Little Valley back in 2016 qualified to do so? It’s a question jurors are asked to consider in the Little Valley Fire civil trial in Reno.
Gene Phillips of the Nevada Division of Forestry spent nearly two days on the stand August 9, 2018, talking about the prescribed burn in Little Valley he planned, modeled and executed in October 2016.
Subsequent to that prescribed burn, a major wildfire broke out, taking 23 homes on Franktown Road with it.
No one is disputing the fire’s origin was part of that controlled burn which got underway October 4, 2016. The controlled burn lasted until October 7.
Plaintiff’s attorney William Jeanney continued to hammer at the controlled burn’s planner, who testified he felt the scene was secure. Under cross examination, Phillips read from the independent report that examined the reasons for the Little Valley Fire.
“Point to me where it mentions the burn plan,” said defense attorney Steve Shevorski. After a long pause and combing the report, Phillips replied, “Does not mention the plan in any of the bullet points.”
Jeanney at one point questioned Phillip’s qualification to model, plan and execute a prescribed burn. But under cross examination the burn boss showed his formal training and education. He has plenty of certifications to execute certain prescribed burns anywhere in the country.
But he did admit on the stand, despite his qualifications, he did not include adjunct vegetation in his burn plan, which should be part of the prescription burn strategy.
Plaintiffs say the fire started in an area of the controlled burn where Phillips under-estimated the humidity.
“The duff fuel bed is part of the unconsumed fuel in unit one that was a consequence of you being out of prescription,” Jeanney said to Phillips.
“That would be possible, yes,” said Phillips.
Jeanney continued, “This is what the wind picked up actually and carried across the line and caused the destruction of Franktown Road, isn’t it?”
“Based on the cause report, yes,” replied Phillips.
On the night and early morning of October 13 and 14, 2016 winds blew at 85 miles an hour. The state claims a fire inside a tree stump burned underground and undetected. Those same winds fueled that fire and caused it to spread.
The jury of four men and 6 women will determine who is at fault for the Little Valley Fire. The decision does not have to be unanimous. Only three quarters of the jury must reach agreement.
Typically there are caps on rewards when a government agency is found liable. However, if the jury or judge then determines gross negligence the caps are removed.
The University of Nevada, Reno is also named as a defendant in this case because the university owns the land where the controlled burn took place.