Appeal vowed in Horseshoe Bay brush-fire suit

HORSESHOE BAY — A Llano County woman who says a brush fire lit by city employees caused smoke and soot damage to her home plans to appeal a decision by a state district judge dismissing her case against Horseshoe Bay.

Maryah Sautter says the April 23, 2008, fire at the city’s reclamation center — which also serves as a storage and disposal site for residential brush waste — burned out of control, creating a huge smoke and ash cloud that left soot and burning debris on her home 200 yards north of the facility.

“We’re going to keep fighting it,” she said Thursday. “We should be able to win by showing that the city violated state law.”

Sautter and a neighbor filed suit against the city in 2009, seeking to recover $80,000 in civil damages stemming from the fire. The petition also sought to put an end to fires at the reclamation center.

The suit was dismissed Feb. 8 by state District Judge Dan Mills, who said state law protects municipalities from civil damages when carrying out governmental functions such as brush and solid-waste disposal.

However, the city did change its rules after a state agency found crews had not followed proper policy.

Since the city’s incorporation in 2005, residential yard waste has been collected and burned at the facility, along with limbs and debris cleared by contractors working on residential lots.

Sautter said the 2008 fire was caused after city employees lit a two-story pile of brush she believed was too large to burn safely.

“The fire was so hot, there was hot ash coming onto my house,” she told The Daily Tribune. “It burned part of the rubber off my front entry doors. We had to repaint our entire house.”

Other damages included heat damage to roofing shingles, scorching the front of the house and causing significant soot stains inside, she said.

In all, Sautter and her husband have paid $28,000 of their own money to repair the damage to their home.

“We had to have (repair crews) come out and wash the buildings down, because the soot from the fire is very acidic,” she said. “It ate away some of the wood on our house.”

Sautter said smoke from the fire was so bad, she and her husband had to stay at a hotel for three days while waiting for the air to clear.

Following complaints from the Sautters, the city was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for the fire after TCEQ investigators discovered city officials hadn’t properly ensured the waste burned was collected from residential properties, according to documents from the agency.

TCEQ investigators said also the city failed to have a Fire Department employee on-hand during the fire, as stipulated by state law.

The city later amended its outdoor burning ordinance to take the state’s rules into account, and with the exception of a May 2009 fire caused by a lightning strike, no large-scale burns have been lit there since.

City Manager Stan Farmer said the changes were intended to bring the city in line with TCEQ requirements, adding local crews are now following an updated operating procedure when it comes to burning at the site.

He said problems related to the April 2008 fire were traced to wind.

“The problem with the April fire wasn’t that it was a big fire, it was that the wind shifted and started blowing to the north,” Farmer said.

Horseshoe Bay should be immune from the suit because employees were carrying out a governmental function, the city has argued.

“Collecting and disposing of brush by burning are directly related to the expressly identified governmental functions of waste disposal and fire protection,” according to a city filing. “As a result, the city of Horseshoe Bay is immune from any negligence arising from its conduct.”

Mills’ order concurred.

“The evidence did not establish any nuisance for which the city of Horseshoe Bay’s immunity was waived,” the ruling stated, noting the city could be held liable for out-of-control burns in the future.

Sautter said she won’t let the setback stop her from seeking damages from what she called the city’s “illegal” burn, adding insurance adjusters with the city at first promised to pay for the damages before reneging.

chris@thepicayune.com

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