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Bridge Work Blamed in WA Wildfire

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

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Welding and cutting with power tools—activities prohibited at the time under local fire regulations—ignited last summer's $11 million Taylor Bridge blaze that destroyed 61 homes and more than 200 other structures in Washington State, investigators have concluded.

“Based on the fire direction indicators, the information and evidence collected to date, I determine that the fire was human caused and was most likely caused by errant sparks and/or slag from the construction activity that was occurring on the bridge immediately prior to the fire’s start,” reports a Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) investigator, in the agency's report.

Taylor Bridge fire
Patti Ann Stover / KHQ

Fighting the Taylor Bridge blaze cost more than $11 million. The fire destroyed dozens of homes, more than 200 other structures, and blackened 23,000 acres.

The blaze began shortly after 1 p.m. Aug. 13 as employees of contractors and subcontractors for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) were replacing the deck on the bridge.

Hundreds of homes were evacuated, and hundreds of firefighters worked over several days to bring the blaze under control.

'Shut Down Zone'

Under state industrial restrictions, the bridge deck replacement activity underway at the time was considered "an industrial operation which may cause a fire to start on or adjacent to forest lands," the report said.

"The construction activity was occurring in 'shut down zone' 675 and the Industrial Fire Precaution Level for the day was level 3 (IFPL3)." That level—the second highest of four—"specifically prohibits welding or cutting of steel after 1:00 p.m."

WSDOT investigation document
Images: WSDOT

Paint chips were seized as evidence. A worker was removing paint with an electric wire wheel when the fire began. A subcontractor was also using a power saw.

The fire was initially reported by an employee of Conway Construction Company Inc., of Ridgefield, WA, which had been awarded the contract to replace the bridge deck on April 30. About 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 13, one Conway employee heard another yell "Fire!" The cry came from an an employee who was suspended 20 feet above the ground in a man lift under the bridge, the report said.

Paint Removal Cited

The employees saw a 10-by-20-foot patch of grass on fire near the bridge. The employee in the man lift told a DNR law enforcement officer later that "at the time he saw the fire, he was using an electric wire wheel to remove paint from steel," the report said.

The Conway employee also said that about five minutes earlier, he had heard a power tool that he believed to be a hot saw operating above him on the bridge deck. He said he did not know who was using the saw but believed it to be an employee of Rainier Steel, a subcontractor based in Auburn, WA.

The report notes that the Conway employee was "welding and wire brushing steel plates and beams beneath the bridge deck on top of the steel piers" and that "an unidentified Rainier Steel employee [was] cutting steel rebar on top of the bridge deck" with a Stihl hot saw with a 14-inch blade "throughout the day."

"Subsequent investigation to date determined the fire was human caused and was associated with the cutting and welding activity," the report said.

Investigators seized paint chips, cigarette butts and other evidence from the scene.

Investigators concluded that the fire had two specific points of origin, each about five by five feet, about 10 feet apart. The report said it could not be determined exactly which of the activities had started the fire, but that the hot saw was the most likely culprit.

Taylor Bridge Fire

It took hundreds of firefighters working over several days to contain the blaze.

In addition, smoking was "partially excluded" as a cause. Investigators found cigarette butts on site but could not determine how much of a role they played in igniting the fire.

Earlier Fires

Furthermore, Conway's project superintendent told investigators that there had been two earlier fires on the site related to construction activity during the project.

The company's employees had put out with fire extinguishers, shovels and dirt, the report disclosed.

Those fires were not reported to DNR or the local fire district until after the wildfire, the report said. Crews said the fires were small, and they did not know what caused them, according to the report.

On Tuesday (Dec. 18), Rainier Steel General Manager Reece Olney issued this statement:

“Rainier Steel expresses its deepest sympathy for those harmed by the Taylor Bridge Fire. However, it believes strongly that its work could not have, and in fact, did not start the fire. Further, Rainier Steel looks forward to being  exonerated from all wrong doing as this matter works its way through the courts. “

Conway Construction owner David Conway issued this statement Wednesday (Dec. 19): "Conway Construction Company is awaiting the final reports from other ongoing investigations. Preliminary findings indicate omissions in the Washington State DNR report."

Shovels and Dirt

Eight to 10 workers also initially tried to put out the Aug. 13 fire with shovels and dirt, the report said. One supervisor grabbed a personal fire extinguisher from his vehicle. It was working but "did very little good," and a nearby garden hose produced "only a trickle of water," the report said.

A water truck used for road dust suppression was on site, but the water was insufficient to extinguish the fire and employees were not trained to use the equipment, investigators learned.

The fire spread swiftly and took days to bring under control.

When David Conway arrived at the scene later, he told investigators that he had invested everything in his company and that he "felt terrible for those who lost their homes, who lost everything." Conway "asked several times what he could do to help," investigators reported.

Taylor Bridge fire - evidence

Fresh cigarette butts were also found at the scene. Investigators were unable to rule them out as a contributing factor to the fire.

Conflicting Directives?

A Conway superintendent told the state's forester that WSDOT representatives had told him that the IFP rules applied only to loggers and that "the bridge was not in (DNR’s) jurisdiction." The forester said that the rules did apply to the contractor, and the Conway official promised compliance.

On Sept. 21, WSDOT told Conway in a letter that they “would hold the contractor to fire safety requirements at Taylor Bridge” and that “relevant contract specifications make Conway Construction responsible for overall site safety at the work site, especially regarding the risks of fire.”

Paying the Tab

Still at issue is who will pay for the fire. DNR is responsible for seeking recovery for its costs associated with the suppression of wildfires. Fighting the Taylor Bridge fire cost about $11.1 million, with DNR paying about half of that. That does not include the damage or loss of private property or impact to public land or infrastructure.

DNR said it would work with the state Attorney General's office "to determine from whom DNR will seek cost recovery."

The agency said, "The process starts with a letter demanding full payment for suppression costs and can ultimately lead to litigation."

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Fire; General contractors; Government contracts; Painting Contractor; Power tool cleaning

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