Photo by AP Wideworld
August fire in Washington state burned thousands of acres and more than 60 homes.

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 the contractors and their liability insurers could face big claims.

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

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

While the state's Dept. of Natural Resources hasn't yet ruled on the exact cause, emergency 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 negligent" in their work on the structure, known as the Taylor Bridge. And while Conway and Rainier haven't been named officially as the fire starters, the property owners' claim Rainier and Conway crews were using welding apparatuses and chop saws in an area in which 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.

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

Within the next four weeks, Helgren will add the State of Washington as a defendant, he says. In September, WSDOT sent a letter to Conway stating that the company will be "held legally responsible for all damages" if investigators determine their work started the fire.