U.S. government sues owners of visitor center

By By Katy Nesbitt The Observer July 16, 2012 02:01 pm

The U.S. Government has sued the owners of the Wallowa Mountains Office and Visitor Center, which burned to the ground July 11, 2010, for more than $2.5 million.

The suit, filed July 9, claims Seaside Associates Limited Partnership failed to properly supervise workers hired to refinish the exterior of the log building.

The suit claims the improper application, cleaning and storing of combustible sealant supplies resulted in the fire that destroyed not only the visitor center, but offices for the U.S. Forest Service, Farm Services Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Wallowa County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The United States brought the suit to recover damages to federal property in the building, but does not include historical documents and items or personal affects, said Mary DeAguero, District Ranger.

The Visitor Center contained a large ponderosa pine tree trunk and numerous documents, maps, and exhibits, many of which were unique and irreplaceable. These losses are in excess of $700,000.

DeAguero said the suit is the direct result of Seaside Associates insurance offering so little in damage compensation.

Pursuant to the lease, Seaside was required to maintain the building and make building  improvements as needed.

On or about July 5, 2010, K.C. Knight, acting on behalf of Seaside, hired  Alberto and Joel Barragan to power wash, caulk and seal the exterior of the building. Knight supplied the Barragans with tools and equipment, including Penofin oil  sealant finish.   

The suit claims on July 11, 2010, the Barragans applied sealant to the exterior of the building.  After finishing their work, the Barragans rolled up drop clothes they had used  during the week to wipe up spills and to cover the bushes and tools from overspray, both of which had sealant on them, and put them in a cart. They then put other equipment in  the cart and covered the cart with a third drop cloth. The cart was stored undercover on the porch of the visitor center.

The storage created an environment conducive to spontaneous combustion of the Penofin oil finish. The draping of the third drop cloth to cover the supplies and  equipment provided an environment that limited cooling breezes and enhanced heat retention. A spontaneous combustion occurred, a fire developed, and the building was destroyed.