Lawyers question firefighters about Big Lake blaze

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2003

PALMER - Lawyers for property owners who were victims of the 1996 Big Lake fire questioned two high-ranking state firefighters this week in a class-action lawsuit.

Firefighters Mark Bertels and John See were asked about a variety of things, including lost notebooks containing details about the fire and a fire forecast that never reached the field commander.

Bertels, a former state Division of Forestry employee, served as incident commander during the fire, also known as the Millers Reach fire. See was the regional fire manager, with oversight of all operations in the coastal region including Big Lake.

The plaintiffs' attorneys argue state negligence caused the 46-acre fire that began June 2, 1996. The fire flared up the next day into such a force that it consumed more than 400 structures across a 65-square-mile area.

But state attorneys assert that winds that had not been forecast whipped the smaller fire into a sudden conflagration too dangerous to fight.

See testified that a fire report that Bertels never received didn't indicate anything alarming for June 3. He said the fire seemed under control the day before.

"This fire, while it (bore) watching, was a success basically," See said. "We effectively knocked it down and were working the perimeter."

Bertels testified that he received a National Weather Service report that called for light winds. But he didn't receive, and never requested, a specialized daily fire report.

Questions from the plaintiffs' attorneys this week continued to focus on whether firefighters attacked aggressively enough.

The June 3 afternoon report predicted extreme fire conditions when applied to a chart in a widely distributed guideline, said Gerry Nolting, one of the attorneys for the property owners.

Bertels and Norm McDonald, another state fire boss, lost their fire field notebooks, Nolting said.

The civil trial began in late February and is expected to last six weeks.

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