LYONS, Ore. — Just over one year after historic fires ravaged the Santiam Canyon, two families who lost loved ones are suing a number of power companies and government entities involved in the Santiam fire for more than $140 million combined.
Angela Mosso and Christopher Tofte are suing Pacific Power after Mosso’s mother, 71-year-old Peggy Mosso, and Angela Mosso and Christopher Tofte’s 13-year-old son Wyatt Tofte died while trying to flee their home on North Fork Road SE in Lyons, Ore.
Travis Cook is suing on behalf of his mother, 71-year-old Cathy Cook, and his brother, 41-year-old Justin Cook, who both lived on North Fork Road SE in Lyons and also died in the fire.
Both lawsuits are being filed by the same firm and assert that Pacific Power, Consumers Power, Marion County, Stayton Fire District and Marion Area Multiagency Emergency Communications (Metcom) are culpable in the deaths of Mosso, Tofte and the Cooks.
The complaints assert that on or about August 16, 2020, the beginning of the Beachie Creek Fire, which would later become part of the Santiam fire, was started northwest of Detroit due to lightning. For the first 10 days, the fire grew slowly and it was monitored for roughly three weeks by the U.S. Forest Service due to accessibility and resources, “rather than taking aggressive action to extinguish the fire.”
On September 1, 2020, the complaint continues, an incident management team was assigned to the fire and made an incident command post at the Old School House in Gates, Ore. There were approximately 250 firefighters, managers and support staff put into place there.
Another fire, the Lionshead fire, also ignited some 17 miles from Detroit; This fire would also become part of the Santiam fire.
On September 4, 2020, the National Weather Service started to issue weather and fire warnings in places around Oregon, including the Santiam Canyon where the Mossos, Toftes and Cooks lived. High wind and low humidity was expected to make a perfect storm of good fire spreading conditions. The following date on September 5, 2020, the National Weather Service issued an “urgent fire weather” warning and said that there could be “red flag warnings” in the future. It also warned of a historic wind event that was expected to help push and spread the fire. A “red flag warning” was issued and the weather service warned that the winds could cause things like downed trees that would help the fire spread more.
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The complaint points this out to argue that government agencies and emergency personnel were aware of the possible dangerous conditions for days before Mosso, Tofte and the Cooks lost their lives. The Marion County Sheriff’s Office posted the weather service’s urgent fire weather message to its own Facebook page on September 6, 2020.
It also says that Portland General Electric had de-energized its power lines in the area because of the high risk of fire spread and intense winds. However, Consumers Power and Pacific Power did not entirely de-energize their lines in the area of the Santiam Canyon, which ended up creating several smaller fires during the extreme weather during that time. The complaint asserts that these small fires, totaling to be 13 additional fires, preoccupied emergency personnel who had to work to put them out as the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fire merged to create the Santiam fire.
Christopher Tofte, Angela Mosso, her mother Peggy and son Wyatt all lived together and, according to the complaint, were never told of the need to evacuate immediately
On September 7, 2020, at around 9:29 p.m., the Marion County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook that the area of Breitenbush and Devils Creek area were at a Level 3: “GO NOW” evacuation notice. The post also said that the next day the area between Gates and Detroit would be at a Level 2: “BE READY” evacuation notice. However, the complaint says that people on North Fork Road no longer had power or cell service to receive the notifications.
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However, the Santiam Canyon and North Fork Road was ordered into a Level 3: “GO NOW” evacuation notice at 11:27 p.m. on Sept. 7 by Marion County Sheriff Joe Kast.
"By this time, for more than five hours, the sheriff’s office had direct knowledge that life-threatening conditions existed throughout the Santiam Canyon and along North Fork Road that should have reasonably triggered an earlier evacuation, including but not limited to falling trees, blocked roads, downed power lines, and arcing electrical equipment; as well as numerous spot fires, brush fires, forest fires, and structure fires already reported and underway within this area," the complaint says.
It wasn’t until 12:40 a.m. on Sept. 8 that a notification was posted about the evacuation on the Marion County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. The complaint says that Metcom did not begin sending emergency notifications about the Level 3 evacuation notice until 2:12 a.m., three hours after the sheriff ordered the evacuation.
At around 3:26 a.m. on the Marion County Sheriff Facebook page, authorities announced they were abandoning the Santiam Canyon due to extreme fire activity and urged anyone left to get out.
At around 11 p.m., just before the Level 3 evacuation notice was put into place, Christopher Rofte was on his way home from running errands when he encountered a roadblock. He explained he was heading home when he was told that all residents were being evacuated and he should stay away. Tofte tried a different route to get onto Highway 22 but he only made it to North Fork Road before he was stopped and told all residents were being evacuated.
Tofte waited hours and tried to contact his family via phone call and text. At around 4 a.m. on Sept. 8 Tofte bypassed the roadblock to head up to North Fork Road where his family lived. According to the complaint he, “came across an individual so severely burned that he did not recognize her to be his life partner Angela Mosso.”
Mosso told Tofte she believed her mother to be dead and hoped that their 13-year-old son Wyatt had escaped the fire earlier when she had told him to take the dog and run. However, Tofte and Mosso would later learn that their son had gone back to the house where both he and Peggy Mosso were discovered dead.
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The Cook lawsuit asserts most of the same. It states that the Cooks were advised that they were under a Level 2: “BE READY” evacuation notice but were never made aware of the need to evacuate immediately. Like Mosso and Tofte, the complaint asserts that there was no power to receive the communications that came through the Marion County Sheriff Office’s Facebook page and that Metcom began sending alerts hours after the Level 3: “GO NOW” evacuation notice was ordered.
In all, the Beachie Creek (Santiam) fire claimed at least five lives and more than 200,000 acres.
The Cooks were found dead inside their home days later. Travis Cook is suing for a total of $40,100,000 for wrongful death. Angela Mosso and Christopher Tofte are suing for a total of $102,000,000 in their case.