The federal government is suing a Copper Center fishing guide service, saying a guide’s improperly extinguished campfire sparked a wildfire in 2019. The Klutina River Fire burned 176 acres, about 146 on Ahtna Inc. land and 30 Bureau of Land Management land, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit, seeking to recover $1 million in wildfire suppression costs, was filed July 8 in Alaska District Court. The lawsuit names Grove’s Salmon Charters LLC and guide Joshua McDonald of Fitchburg, Michigan as defendants.
Stephanie Holcomb, the owner of Alaska-based Grove’s Salmon Charters, said she was taken aback by the lawsuit and believed federal investigators had already cleared her guide and company of wrongdoing.
“I don’t believe we are responsible,” Holcomb said in a phone interview Monday. “We weren’t the last users of the site that day.”
The lawsuit says the blaze began in July 2019, when Alaska was in the middle of a summer that brought record heat and wildfires.
Grove’s Salmon Charters received a land use permit from Ahtna Inc., a regional Alaska Native corporation, to allow fishing guides and clients to use the lands and waters of the river area Klutina for the 2019 fishing season, according to the complaint.
[Alaska’s fire agencies are preparing for more starts during an already historic wildfire season]
Holcomb, who also owns a campground in the area, said she wasn’t on the water herself that summer because she had just had a baby, so she hired Joshua McDonald as a guide.
“I hired the best and most professional outdoor guide I know, and that was Josh,” she said.
According to the complaint, on July 8, McDonald and four patrons traveled by boat to a fishing hole around mile 17 of the Klutina River, where McDonald lit a fire near the edge of the river “to ward off insects and keep warm customers”.
The lawsuit alleges the fire was not properly extinguished and burned out of control, growing to an acre before being reported to Alaska Forestry Division firefighters.
Holcomb said McDonald followed protocol to extinguish the fire and the group was not the last group of users in the area that day. She also disputes that there was a known fire ban at the time.
“We weren’t the last group of users at the fire site that day, there were many other users using that fishing spot after we left,” she said.
Suing private companies and individuals for starting costly and destructive wildfires is not a new tactic for the federal government. In California’s Eastern District alone, the United States Attorney’s Office has reached more than $200 million in settlements for wildfire damage to public lands, involving dozens of different cases.
But it’s unclear how often the federal government has tried the tactic in Alaska. Assistant U.S. Attorney Siobhan McIntyre did not respond to questions Monday.
Holcomb said she has yet to retain an attorney for the case and was only told about it when a reporter contacted her on Monday. She runs a very small business, she says.
“I don’t have a million dollars – not everything I’ve put together,” she said. “I mean, I play with hundreds of dollars (not millions).”