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Originally published December 17, 2012 at 9:41 PM | Page modified December 18, 2012 at 12:40 PM

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Safety violation blamed for huge Cle Elum wildfire

Last summer's Taylor Bridge fire, one of the state's most destructive wildfires in decades, was likely caused by construction workers who violated a rule requiring an early shutdown of welding equipment and power saws during dry conditions, according to a state investigation.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Taylor Bridge fire, which destroyed 61 homes, was likely caused by construction workers who violated a state rule that required a 1 p.m. shutdown of welding and power saws during dry conditions, according to a state Department of Natural Resources investigation.

The agency's report, issued Monday, offers an unsettling look at the conduct of bridge workers in the run-up to the fire and as they sought unsuccessfully to contain a blaze that eventually spread across more than 23,000 acres.

The report will add fuel to a legal battle over the millions of dollars in damage caused by the fire. In terms of property loss, the Taylor Bridge fire ranks as one of the most destructive in Washington in decades. In addition to the houses, the fire destroyed more than 200 other structures.

The fire started while construction crews were working on a state Department of Transportation bridge project on state Highway 10, southeast of Cle Elum

As the fire began to spread, a water truck was on site. But the construction official who knew how to operate the truck was away on an errand. The other workers, lacking adequate training, were able only to hook up a small garden hose to the truck and release "a trickle of water," according to the report.

Fire extinguishers also were scarce, so many of the workers initially used shovels to fight the fire, according to the report.

"They should have had people trained to use the water truck. They should have had fire extinguishers that were up to the job, and they should have been following the industrial fire protection-level requirements," said Bryan Flint, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Conway Construction of Ridgefield, Clark County, and a subcontractor, Rainier Steel of Auburn, were the companies working on the bridge. Both companies have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by property owners.

"We started it," Greg Ross, a Conway Construction official, told an investigator who arrived on the scene the day of the fire, according to the report.

When asked how it started, Ross talked about welding and cutting conducted by the contractor and the subcontractor, according to the report.

Attorneys for Rainier and Conway Construction did not return calls Monday seeking comment on the findings.

In a brief filed in response to the lawsuit, attorneys for both companies denied their clients started the fire.

The investigation concluded that the fire was caused by human activity.

According to the report, the most likely causes were sparks cast by a Stihl power saw, used to cut metal rebar, or hot metal debris from welding, either of which could have ignited dry brush and grass.

In a briefing with reporters Monday, Flint said that the agency is consulting with the Attorney General's Office about seeking to recover its share of the $11.1 million spent fighting the fire.

State transportation department officials, in a statement released Monday, said that the contractor and subcontractor carried up to $9 million in insurance. That agency also is evaluating legal options for recovering the costs of fire damage to guardrails and roads and guardrails.

The fire occurred during a stretch of hot, dry summer weather.

By Aug. 9, the dry conditions prompted DNR to issue a Level Three fire-protection rule that prohibited power saws and welding after 1 in the afternoon.

That rule was still in effect on Aug. 13, but investigators found that the welding continued after 1 p.m. that day.

The investigation also found that there were two prior fires on the construction site. They were both put out by Conway employees and never reported to the state Department of Transportation.

If they had been reported, a DNR official would have been dispatched to the site to ensure the fires were out and to discuss fire precautions, according to the report.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com. The Yakima Herald-Republic contributed to this report.

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