Homeowner victims of Andrew Fire file lawsuit


Firefighters and deputy sheriffs illegally prevented homeowners from trying to save their own property during an August 2004 wildfire south of Reno, the owners of two homes lost to the blaze contend in a pair of lawsuits.

Gary Schmidt and Mary Bartell and Brent and Ada Danner sued the Reno Fire Department and four target shooters who allegedly started the Andrew Fire. Schmidt and Bartell's suit also names Sheriff Dennis Balaam as a defendant.

According to the suits filed last week in Washoe District Court, firefighters "failed to provide any fire protection, whatsoever" at the homes, among six destroyed by the fire that swept through the Andrew Lane and Toll Road areas nearly two years ago.

Officials also prevented homeowners from reaching their homes to remove valuable property and trying to protect the structures, the suits contend.

In their suit, Schmidt and Bartell say their Nielson Road home was ringed with defensible space and equipped with a system of sprinklers, hoses and sand buckets that could have been "simply and quickly" used to protect the home had officials allowed the homeowners access.

Schmidt, a Republican candidate in District 5 for the Washoe County Commission, said Wednesday that state law gives him the right to protect his home.

"The state constitution says you have the right to protect your property," Schmidt said. "Our strong position is they cannot remove you from your property or deny you access to your property, even if it does put you in danger."

In his suit, Brent Danner contends he was ordered from his Ramona Road home by Reno firefighters, "thereby denying him the right to protect his property from the oncoming fire" while some of his neighbors were allowed to do that. He lost his home, garage, outbuildings and valuable personal property, his suit says.

Schmidt and Bartell say they lost their home, garage, numerous valuable antiques, including automobiles, guns, coins, valuable posters and family heirlooms, while a pet dog perished in the blaze. Both suits seek unspecified damages in excess of $10,000.

Deputy District Attorney Greg Shannon said Wednesday sheriff's deputies were acting within their authority the day of the Andrew Fire.

"Certainly the police have the authority to keep people from entering a dangerous scene, and that includes a wildfire," Shannon said. "It's within their power to manage emergencies."

City Attorney Patricia Lynch had no comment on the suits but said "we will definitely be investigating and filing a defense."

Also named as defendants are Armond and Nathalie Otis, Sylvie Bedard and David Genest, who the suit contends started the fire while target shooting in the hills north of Washoe Lake.

Armond Otis acknowledged Wednesday that he and a family group were target shooting in the area the fire started Aug. 25, 2004, but said it's uncertain they were responsible.

"Something happened. Nobody knows 100 percent that we really started the fire," Otis said.

Otis' attorney, Curtis Coulter, said it's possible the fire was sparked by others.

"We could find nothing that would indicate the guns or the ammunition started the fire," Coulter said. "It could have been somebody else."

Pushed by strong winds, the blaze rocketed north and east through Andrew Lane and Toll Road, eventually consuming about 2,700 acres and destroying the six homes.

Two months after the fire, Reno fire Chief Marty Scheuerman said firefighters "had our hands full from the very beginning" during the Andrew Fire and that protecting human life was the foremost goal.

"From a firefighter's perspective, human life is the No. 1 priority. It's primary," Scheuerman said. "We could have had a lot of structures burned, a lot of lives lost. We didn't."

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