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Property owners sue Arizona over 2013 wildfire that killed 19 firefighters

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - More than 160 property owners affected by an Arizona wildfire that killed 19 firefighters last year have filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that its mismanagement caused lives to be lost and homes and businesses to be destroyed.

The lawsuit alleges that fire officials "failed miserably" and acted with negligence in fighting the so-called Yarnell Hill Fire, a blaze that claimed all but one member of an elite firefighting crew last June.

"If the Arizona State Forestry Division had competently managed, contained and suppressed the Yarnell Hill Fire, no member of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew would have died," the suit stated. "And Yarnell and its people would have escaped devastation."

The wind-whipped, lighting-caused Yarnell Hill fire destroyed scores of homes and burned 8,400 acres (1900 hectares) before it was extinguished in an around the tiny town of Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix.

The deadly blaze captured attention across America for weeks and marked the greatest loss of life from a U.S. wildfire since 1933.

The lawsuit by 162 property owners, filed on Monday in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, names the state and the forestry division as defendants. Plaintiffs do not include the families of firefighters killed in the blaze.

UNSPECIFIED DAMAGES SOUGHT

The suit seeks unspecified damages for lost and damaged property and "infliction of extreme emotional harm, injury and distress."

A spokeswoman for the forestry division could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokesman for Arizona Governor Brewer declined comment late on Tuesday.

Separate investigations into the incident were conducted, with the most critical coming last December in which investigators charged that forestry officials put preserving structures and land above firefighter safety. The Arizona Industrial Commission fined the state forestry division $559,000 for workplace safety violations, a sanction that has been appealed. 

On Tuesday, plans for the making of a feature film about the wildfire tragedy were announced.

The movie will be directed by filmmaker Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart"), with Ken Nolan ("Black Hawk Down") writing the screenplay. It’s being produced by a team from Conde Nast Entertainment.

"The heroic and tragic story of the men who gave their lives to protect the community of Yarnell is heartbreaking, compelling and inspiring," Cooper said in a statement. "I look forward to telling their story with the respect, sensitivity and authenticity that these true American heroes deserve."   

(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Richard Borsuk)

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