Lawsuit accuses rancher, farm equipment manufacturer of sparking 68,000-acre wildfire


By Diana Kruzman | The Oregonian/OregonLive

Aug 6, 2019


The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are suing a rancher, two people hired to cut his wheat and the John Deere farm equipment company, accusing them of starting a wildfire that burned tens of thousands of acres on their reservation two years ago and caused hundreds of evacuations.


The suit claims Jamie Wisenbaker, who owns a ranch just north of the tribal lands in Wasco County, allowed his brother Larry to operate a combine harvester on his property in August 2017 despite a lack of experience or training.


Larry Wisenbaker continued to drive the machine, the lawsuit alleges, even after it began giving off sparks from a rock that had become lodged in the intake chute. The sparks eventually set the field ablaze and developed into the Nena Springs fire, according to the suit. It burned for more than two weeks and consumed more than 68,000 acres.


The fire “caused significant damage” throughout the reservation, the suit says, including “burnt forest and land, damaged fencing, deterioration of the soil and watershed, range and vegetation damage, damage to cultural resources (and) damage to fish and wildlife and their habitat.”


It seeks for up to $12.25 million in economic damages from lost timber resources.


The Oregon State Fire Marshal concluded that the cause of the fire was accidental, “probably caused by the use of a combine for routine harvesting operations” and exacerbated by 100-degree temperatures, spokesman Rudy Owen told The Oregonian/OregonLive.


The suit, filed Monday in Wasco County Circuit Court, accuses Jamie Wisenbaker and Lester Lindell, a contractor who hired Larry Wisenbaker to harvest Jamie Wisenbaker’s wheat, of negligence.


The suit says Lindell and Larry Wisenbaker failed to properly inspect the combine or notice that a rock had become stuck in the intake chute. The combine also didn’t have properly adjusted mirrors to allow the driver to see the chute, the suit says.


Lindell declined to comment on the lawsuit, and Jamie Wisenbaker didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.


Reached by phone Tuesday, Larry Wisenbaker acknowledged that he had been driving the combine and that it had sparked the wildfire but said the cause was accidental...