The federal government is suing a fishing guide service out of Copper Center, saying a guide’s improperly extinguished campfire started a wildfire in 2019. The Klutina River Fire burned 176 acres, about 146 on Ahtna Inc. lands and 30 on Bureau of Land Management lands, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit, aimed at recouping $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 Alaska-based owner of Grove’s Salmon Charters, says she was blindsided by the suit and believed federal investigators had already cleared her guide and business of wrongdoing.
“I don’t believe that we’re responsible,” Holcomb said in a phone interview Monday. “We were not the last users at the site that day.”
The lawsuit says the fire started in July 2019, when Alaska was in the midst of a summer that brought record heat and wildfires.
Grove’s Salmon Charters received a land-use permit from Ahtna Inc., an Alaska Native regional corporation, to allow fishing guides and clients to use the lands and waters of the Klutina River area 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’d just had a baby, so she hired Joshua McDonald as a guide.
“I hired the most professional, professional outdoors guide that I knew, which was Josh,” she said.
According to the complaint, on July 8, McDonald and four clients boated to a fishing hole around mile 17 of the Klutina River, where McDonald started a fire near the river’s edge “to keep the bugs away and keep clients warm.”
The lawsuit alleges that the fire wasn’t properly extinguished and burned out of control, growing to an acre before it was reported to Alaska Division of Forestry firefighters.
Holcomb said McDonald followed protocol to put out the fire and that the group wasn’t the last user group in the area that day. She also disputes that there was a known fire ban at the time.
“We were not the last user group at the site of the fire that day, there was many other users that use that fishing location after we left,” she said.
Suing private businesses and individuals for starting expensive and destructive wildfires is not a new tactic for the federal government. In the Eastern District of California alone, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has come to more than $200 million in settlements over wildfire damage to public lands, involving dozens of different cases.
But it’s not clear how frequently the federal government has tried the tactic in Alaska. Assistant U.S. Attorney Siobhan McIntyre did not respond to questions Monday.
Holcomb said she hasn’t yet retained a lawyer for the case, and only learned about it when a reporter contacted her Monday. She runs a very small business, she said.
“I don’t have a million dollars — not everything I have combined,” she said. “I mean, I’m playing with hundreds of dollars (not millions).”