Insurance won’t cover damage from wildfire in Helena’s Scratchgravel Hills

Insurance won’t cover damage from wildfire in Helena’s Scratchgravel Hills

05 October 2013

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USA — More than 30 people may have suffered damage to their homes and property during the 2012 Corral fire, which burned more than 1,800 acres in and around the Scratchgravel Hills.

But the insurance policies held by Robert Fitte, who accidentally started the fire, will not have enough coverage — probably $1.3 million — to make all those property owners whole, say lawyers involved in the case, and the distribution of those funds has yet to be determined.

“We just want to go about it in a way that’s right for anybody,” said Randall Nelson, a Billings attorney representing Fitte’s insurer, Mountain West Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co., said Thursday. “It’s just a really unfortunate situation from our standpoint and we hope that everybody gets the best possible outcome they can, given the limited resources.”

Fitte’s homeowner policy would bring maximum payouts of $300,000. A federal magistrate in August agreed with Tom Budewitz, representing another landowner, and ruled that a

$1 million business policy also applies because Fitte started the fire burning slash from a 70-foot tree he cut down to protect both his home and his home-based business.

One of the neighboring landowners, an entity controlled by Steve Behlmer, went to arbitration with Fitte. The arbitrator pegged Behlmer’s damage at $500,000 and the two sides agreed that insurance proceeds, not Fitte himself, would satisfy that judgment, according to a stipulation filed in District Court.

But with all the other pending claims, that money may never get paid. Budewitz, whose client Kevin DeTienne lost numerous family heirlooms and a favorite horse in the fire, said he would work to prevent Behlmer getting that first, big slice of the proceeds.

Nelson, representing the insurer, said parties are asking Helena attorney Curt Drake, who represents Fitte, to get all the parties together and reach an agreement.

“Unfortunately, it looks like there’s not going to be full compensation for anybody,” said Ben Everett of Anaconda, representing landowner Glenn Boles. “There has to be some method by which the money that is there is distributed.”

If agreement can’t be reached, conflicts could be decided by judges, adding costs for the landowners.

Drake could not be reached for comment Friday, but said back in February that he was working on a process to divide the insurance proceeds.

He also said previously that Fitte felt “terrible” about all the losses suffered in the fire. Fitte had received a burning permit and had taken steps to ensure the fire was out, he said.

The Corral fire spread two days later when high winds picked up a stray spark from the remnants of that fire. Ultimately 1,863 acres of public and private land were burned and four homes destroyed between June 26 and July 2, 2012.

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