Colvilles sue federal government over 2015 wildfire damage

The Tribes say parts of the reservation in northeastern Washington were turned into a “moonscape.”

Associated Press

NESPELEM — The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, saying federal agencies failed to fulfill their legally required duties before, during and after the 2015 wildfires that burned more than 375 square miles and turned parts of the reservation in northeastern Washington state into a “moonscape.”

The Colville Tribes’ approximately 9,500 members rely heavily on timber revenue and other natural resources, The Spokesman-Review reported.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, they seek compensation after the 2015 fires destroyed roughly 20% of the commercial timber on the reservation. But Andrew Joseph Jr., chairman of the Colville Business Council, said the damage extended beyond the lost revenue.

“Tribal members hunt, fish, and gather food and medicine throughout the Colville Reservation,” Joseph said in a statement. “In many areas the fires burned so hot that they sterilized the soil and created a moonscape. It will take decades for our resources to completely recover in those areas.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, comes as wildfires this year continue to devastate the Colville Reservation in eastern Washington.

According to the court filing, the loss of 800 million board feet of timber in the 2015 fires represented “the largest loss of board feet of timber of any fire event on any Indian reservation in recorded history.”

Under federal law, the U.S. government is responsible for managing forest health and providing adequate firefighting resources on land it holds in trust on behalf of Native American tribes. The lawsuit contends the government knew it needed to make forests on their reservation less susceptible to severe fire by thinning trees and conducting controlled burns, and that its failure to do so “led to tinderbox conditions in which catastrophic fire was inevitable.”

Between August and October 2015, the North Star Fire burned for 57 days and the Tunk Block Fire for 64. As they tore through dense forest, flames rose up to 100 feet high, generating extreme heat that caused long-term damage to the ground, posed high risk to firefighters and created their own weather systems.

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