Cal Fire Under Fire: Ordered to Pay $30 Million to Landowner

This article was published in Today’s Sacramento Bee regarding Superior Court Judge Leslie Nichols’ order for Cal Fire and the State of California to pay $30 million to Sierra Pacific Industries for damages related to the 2007 Moonlight Fire. I’ve posted the first several paragraphs; the link to the complete article follows.

Smoke rises from the Moonlight fire, which burned in Plumas and Lassen counties for 22 days in September 2007. Photo courtesy of the Office of the US Attorney.

Judge orders Cal Fire to pay $30 million for ‘reprehensible conduct’ in Moonlight fire case

By Denny Walsh and Sam Stanton
dwalsh@sacbee.com
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 – 9:41 pm

In a blistering ruling against Cal Fire, a judge in Plumas County has found the agency guilty of “egregious and reprehensible conduct” in its response to the 2007 Moonlight fire and ordered it to pay more than $30 million in penalties, legal fees and costs to Sierra Pacific Industries and others accused in a Cal Fire lawsuit of causing the fire.

The ruling is the latest twist in an epic legal battle that began not long after the fire erupted on Labor Day 2007, scorching more than 65,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen counties.

Sierra Pacific, the largest private landowner in California, was blamed by state and federal officials for the blaze, with a key report finding it was started by a spark from the blade of a bulldozer belonging to a company working under contract for Sierra Pacific.

But company officials have steadfastly denied responsibility and have accused the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service of conspiring to cover up their own shortcomings that allowed the fire to rage out of control.

Even after Sierra Pacific agreed to settle a federal lawsuit over the devastation in two national forests by paying $55 million in cash and handing over 22,500 acres of land to the government, the company insisted it was undone by an erroneous ruling of U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, and then was a victim of stonewalling by Cal Fire in that agency’s Plumas County suit, including the alleged withholding of thousands of pages of key internal documents relevant to the legal struggle.

In a 28-page order issued Tuesday, retired Superior Court Judge Leslie C. Nichols essentially agreed with all of Sierra Pacific’s points, adopting a separate, 57-page order proposed by Sierra Pacific and the other defendants almost word-for-word, and excoriating the behavior of Cal Fire and two lawyers from the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris, which represented the agency.

“The court finds that Cal Fire’s actions initiating, maintaining and prosecuting this action, to the present time, is corrupt and tainted,” the judge wrote. “Cal Fire failed to comply with discovery obligations, and its repeated failure was willful.”

The agency withheld documents for months, “destroyed evidence critical (to the case) … and engaged in a systematic campaign of misdirection with the purpose of recovering money from (Sierra Pacific).”

(Click link below for remainder of the article.)


Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/02/05/6132239/judge-orders-calfire-to-pay-30.html#storylink=cpy

3 Comments

  1. For people who believe the world is about the circle of life, this circle is pretty interesting. Three years ago, it was President Obama’s Attorney General who had loosed his dogs of crime fighters on SPI, looking to “get” them for a $BILLION DOLLARS for damages to the public domain due to their negligence and to empty supposed deep pockets. All for fire damage to a little more than 50,000 acres of public and private land.

    And this from a Federal government that never, ever produces an assessment of asset value lost to wildland fire, and actually will not even attempt to put out wildland fire if they can conjure a way to declare the “fire is burning for resource use.” Nor do they produce an estimate of damage due to conflagration or stand removal fire. Never an estimate of loss to the people and to private interests. Never. Just their suppression “costs” are reported. Unless, of course, the Holder AG Justice Dept can see money to be gotten and then magically, they are very able to appraise loss to fire.

    Their best damage claim, which has been accepted by the Federal bench, is “loss of grandeur of the landscape.” I guess it all comes down to whose ox was gored, and the Federal ox gets preference in our current government. The US Govt is a credible judge in a landscape beauty contest, whereby essential black backed woodpecker epicenter habitat is created? Irony, that. A flawed system? In my mind, yes. Is it time for a discussion of gains and losses, in dollars? Yes. Because the zealots in Justice are mining American business for money, not justice. Not change.

    They have three teams of attorneys whose job it is to find fault and go after damages from fire that ignited on private property and burned Federal assets. One in LA, one in Sacramento, and one in SLC. And no tort limit to damages they claim. On the other hand, if the fire from Federal land burns private land, a fire started by negligence, a fire unfought or a fire that blows up from a set backfire, tort limitations to damages by the Feds won’t pay legal costs to gain a finding of liability. There is no practical way or reason to try to gain damages from Federal fire negligence, with present tort limitations on what can be gained from suing the Feds. It is not a fair and just legal world for private timberland owners within or adjacent to Federal land when it comes to fire and liability.

    I read the story and what the judge has written. This is a very qualified judge, with a keen sense of the law and fairness. His decision holds the California Attorney General’s minions in poor standing, and more so with the kangaroo court-like investigators for CalFire who were being manipulated and played like marionettes by the AG’s office. California AG Harris has some ‘splainin’ to do and Gov Brown has to realize her office’s actions have demeaned CA state governance.

    Now I guess we look to see what SPI does in the Federal Courts, since the whole of the fire investigation and their forced settlement is about now compromised witnesses who are convicted liars. Holder was going for a billion dollars in damages, and in the end, the settlement value was somewhere around $120 million. But 22,000 acres of wilderness, proposed wilderness and roadless area, denied access forest lands, owned by SPI, were traded in lieu of dollars, to the Feds, as a part of the settlement.

    What I particularly liked about that was the Federal Govt which cannot report fire damages nor appraise wildland fire losses, sure as heck had to value those landlocked SPI lands, and by so doing, established value for unroaded lands not ever open for logging even though privately owned. Locked out, as it were, by the USFS, which is contrary to any tenet of fairness in law. So the inflated values Holder was using to determine fire loss was used to “sell” private land that was, in the private use sense, worthless. Of no value.

    And then there is a criminal aspect to this whole deal. Lying in Federal Court, by a publicly employed witness for the State, is a criminal offense. We have to now watch to see if there will be criminal charges filed against the CA State Justice Dept lawyers and the CalFire folks who lied and did whatever to gain the now overturned conviction. I had to giggle when I saw mention of the fire lookout and the marijuana smoking issue. Lonely up there in the sky, in the clouds. A little toke here and there, and what do you know, time just flies. Oops. No fire report on smoke. Was it because the lookout couldn’t see out the windows for the smoke in the lookout tower itself?

    A just government is what we are entitled to, what we must demand. A punitive government might cheer those in the radical left or right, but it is a dangerous practice because it might be you they come for next. The newspaper story says the verdict will be appealed. That is a review of the process, not the facts, or the evidence. The lies and manipulated evidence are now exposed to sunlight and so are the people who took that fork in the road in this binary life we lead. $30 million is a good start for SPI. We shall see where this all leads.

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