Lawsuit Alleges Rancher, John Deere Combine Caused Wildfire

A lawsuit alleges that this combine sparked the Nena Springs Fire in Oregon in 2017. ( Oregon State Fire Marshal )

A lawsuit filed in Oregon’s Wasco County Circuit Court claims the August 2017 wildfire that burned 68,000 acres was caused by a rancher and John Deere, the manufacturer of a combine that sparked the blaze.

The suit was filed by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs who say the wildfire burned tens of thousands of acres on their reservation and caused hundreds of evacuations. The tribe alleges Jamie Wisenbaker, who owns a ranch just north of the tribal lands in Wasco County, allowed his brother Larry to operate a combine on his property in August 2017 despite a lack of experience or training.

The combine began emitting sparks from a rock lodged in the header, according to The Oregonian, but Larry Wisenbaker continued to drive the machine, the lawsuit alleges. 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.

The suit alleges the fire caused “significant damage’ throughout the reservation, 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.”

The tribe is seeking $12.25 million in economic damages from lost timber resources.

The Oregon State Fire Marshal determined 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.

The tribe also named John Deere, which manufactured the combine harvester, in the lawsuit, claiming the company made faulty equipment. Court records show the allegations are that John Deere should have designed a machine “capable of encountering naturally occurring debris without causing mechanical issues, sparks, or fires,” with safety features such as an automatic shut-off switch or operator warning alert.

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