ANCHORAGE - Jury selection began today in Palmer in a lawsuit that charges the state could have prevented the disastrous Big Lake wildfire of 1996.
The fire destroyed more than 400 houses and other buildings and caused an estimated $15 million in damage. It was the state's costliest and was the first to blaze through a populated area. Whipped by wind, it burned a path across 37,000 acres.
In 1998, about 600 Big Lake-area homeowners and landowners filed a class-action lawsuit charging that the state Division of Forestry could have stopped it. The next year, a Superior Court judge dismissed the suit. Later, the Alaska Supreme Court sent it back down to the Superior Court.
The trial will establish whether state fire officials were responsible for losing control of the fire, but it will not establish the amount in damages, if any, due the victims. It is expected to last four to eight weeks, with a 12-day break to accommodate spring vacations.