Tamarack lawsuit moves forward

A strike team drives toward the Tamarack Fire on July 18.

A strike team drives toward the Tamarack Fire on July 18.
Photo by Kurt Hildebrand.

A lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over damage caused by the Tamarack Fire has been filed in the Eastern District of U.S. District Court of California.

Attorney Bill Jeanney updated the claimants in the July 2021 fire that started in the Sierra above Markleeville and burned all the way into the Pine Nut Mountains.

Jeanney said the next step is to serve the U.S. Forest Service, which will have 60-90 days to answer.

He said the lawsuit lists the claimants who have completed the notice procedure, the rest will have to complete a six-month notice requirement.

“We will then file their lawsuit and ask that they join the first lawsuit filed,” he said.

Jeanney anticipates that the Forest Service will request that the court dismisses the case.

“I believe that this initial attack on our case will take 3-6 months to resolve,” he said.

A claim exceeding $85 million was filed with the U.S. Forest Service for damage caused by the Tamarack Fire.

Started by lightning, the Tamarack Fire was first reported July 4, 2021, but Forest Service officials expected it to burn itself out. A week later, they decided not to insert a fire crew, even though the fire had grown.

On July 16, 2021, the fire exploded into life, sending flames down toward the historic town of Markleeville and a column of smoke into the stratosphere.

By the time it was done, it had claimed 25 structures and burned 68,696 acres from the Sierra to the Pine Nuts.

There are 29 claimants, a dozen of whom live in Douglas County and the rest in Alpine County.

When the plume first arose around 4 p.m. on July 16, downslope winds were already pushing the Tamarack down Hot Springs Creek toward Grover Hot Springs and Markleeville.

Not long after the fire took off that Friday afternoon, an East Fork battalion chief was parked along Fredericksburg Road at Highway 88 trying to figure out where it was coming from.

The size of the plume gave residents across Carson Valley the impression that it was much closer than it was prompting residents to call 911 to report the fire was in their neighborhoods.

Wind patterns caused the smoke to rise above the Sierra and then curl around the Pine Nuts, contributing to the confusion about its location.

Firefighters battled to save Markleeville as the fire bore down on the historic mountain town. Within hours of the plume appearing in the mountains, Markleeville and the surrounding region was being evacuated.

On Saturday evening there were only 120 firefighters working on the fire that had officially grown from 500 to more than 21,000 acres in less than 24 hours.

The fire forced both the incident command and the evacuation center to move from Woodfords to Carson Valley. By Sunday morning, reinforcements were gathering at Douglas High School, while evacuees were at the Douglas County Community & Senior Center.

The fire was expanding so quickly that official sources weren’t able to keep up with its growth. With no containment, the only means to track the size of the fire was to use federal fire web sites that allowed measurement of the acreage.

Heavy smoke prevented firefighting aircraft from helping to douse the blaze, with visibilities dropping below three miles at times.

The fire threatened to cross the Douglas County line on two fronts.

On July 20, Douglas County issued an alert that residents along the state line should be prepared to leave their homes.

Firefighters were able to keep the blaze from burning into the mountains north of Highway 88, which kept it from threatening South Lake Tahoe and the Foothill area of Douglas County.

On the southern front, however, the fire burned across the state line overnight on July 20 and threatened the Highway 395 corridor from Double Spring south to Holbrook.

That night, Douglas County Sheriff’s deputies and Search and Rescue Team members went door to door to advise residents living near Leviathan Mine Road and Holbrook Junction of the danger.

On July 21, roughly 1,200 Topaz Ranch Estates residents were advised the fire was headed their way. An additional 1,369 people were evacuated primarily from the Highway 395 corridor, bringing the total number of those evacuated to 2,439.

Douglas County commissioners issued a state of emergency on July 23.

The fire’s arrival in the lighter Pine Nut Mountain vegetation combined with calmer weather allowed firefighters to finally get ahead of the blaze. By July 24, the Douglas County Building Department was starting to send crews south to survey the damage. On July 25, evacuation of Topaz Ranch Estates and Topaz Lake had been lifted. The next day Highway 395 reopened, though firefighters and NV Energy work crews would be visible along the route for days afterward.

It has been 36 years since the July 29, 1987, Acorn Fire which was the last major fire that resulted in a lawsuit against the Forest Service. It would be more than 11 years before those claims were settled. Bradley, Drendel and Jeanney represented the clients in that case, as well.

Portions of this story are excerpted from the 2022 Carson Valley Almanac.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment