Small contractors replacing the deck on a small bridge last August may have started a big fire in the dry hills of eastern Washington state. No one was killed, but property damage costs are steep and liability insurers could face big claims.

A dozen property owners in Washington state have filed a lawsuit blaming the bridge general contractor and steel erector for a fire that consumed 23,500 acres and over 60 homes in the area of Cle Elum, about 75 miles from Seattle. Initial assessments of the property damage put the total at more than $8 million, but the final cost will be higher.

Filed Oct. 15  in Kittitas County Superior Court,  the lawsuit names as defendants general contractor Conway Construction Co., Ridgefield, Wash., and steel erector Rainier Steel Inc., Auburn, Wash.

While the state’s Dept. of Natural Resources hasn’t yet ruled on the exact cause, emergency response personnel responding to the Aug. 13 fire initially said it “originated” at a bridge reconstruction site operated by Conway between Cle Elum and Ellensburg.

Conway has a contract with the Washington State Dept. of Transportation to replace the bridge deck on State Route 10.

According to the property owners, the defendants “breached their duty of care and were, in fact, negligent in performing their work on the Taylor Bridge. Their negligent acts (or failures to act) have led to extensive damage to plaintiffs and their properties and/or their businesses or incomes.”

The suit continues to allege that defendants “intentionally committed acts that they knew (or were substantially certain) could cause a fire to enter onto and spread across plaintiffs’ properties.”

And while Conway and Rainier haven’t been officially named as the fire starters, the property owners' claim that Rainier and Conway crews were using welding apparatuses and chop saws and that sparks and arcing was occurring in an area where a fire ban was in place.

The property owners' attorney, Mike Helgren, says that dry vegetation had not been properly cut back and that fire protection blankets were not used.

“They should have used safety measures,” he says. “There was a combination of failures. It is astonishing how many mistakes were made by Conway and Rainier.”

Conway lawyer Francis Floyd did not respond to calls seeking comment. Officials of Rainier Steel could not be reached for comment.

Helgren says that Travelers of Hartford, Conn., insures Conway and that Chicago-based CNA insures Rainier.

Liability for WSDOT?

Within the next four weeks Helgren will add the State of Washington as a defendant, he says.

Adding the state to the case is more than procedural. Helgren claims the state allowed the companies to skirt their own safety standards and procedures, preventing the contractors to from cutting away more vegetation. And once the fire did start, the state inspector called in the wrong location.

“Others on site were prepared to fight the fire and the state forbade it,” Helgren claims.

In September, WSDOT sent a letter to Conway stating the company will be “held legally responsible for all damages” if investigators determine that their construction work started the Taylor Bridge fire.

“Through our detailed contracts, our contractors know that they are responsible for working safely, especially during fire season,” says Steve Reinmuth, WSDOT chief of staff, in a statement. “The majority of contractors do it right. But if a contractor promises to manage risks and fails to deliver, we will hold them to their handshake with Washington taxpayers.”