September 02, 2009
CalFire sues to recoup Moonlight expenses
QUINCY, California (SmallTownPapers) -- In a lawsuit filed in Plumas County Superior Court earlier this month, the California
Department of Forestry is asking for the recovery of more than $8 million for suppression of the September 2007 Moonlight Wildfire, as well as investigation, auditing and litigation fees and costs.
Named as defendants are the landowners, property manager, timber buyer, the logging company owner and the two employees who worked the day the fire started.
Among the land and timber owners are Brooks Walker III, the timber owner and an individual who maintains several residences in California. He is trustee of two of the four trusts with percentages of interest in the property. Leslie Walker is the trustee of the other two trusts.
Named as the landowner in the suit is the Red River Forests Partnership, which is listed with Brooks Walker, et al, as timberland owners of record on the Cooks Creek Timber Harvest Plan, which Moonlight was part of.
The property manager listed is W.M. Beaty and Associates, Inc., of Redding.
Beaty's officers sold the standing timber on behalf of the owners to Sierra Pacific Industries of Anderson, and officers there hired timber operators, including Howell's Forest Harvesting of Shingle-town, which is owned by Eunice Howell.
Howell's employees Kelly Crismon and J.W. Bush are also named in the lawsuit? Crismon for driving the equipment that sparked the fire and Bush for allegedly failing to perform the required ground inspection in the allotted two hours and not having adequate communication equipment available to report a fire.
Listed in the general allegations are three other fires purportedly started by Howell's employees. The Greens Fire was on the Moonville sale near Moonlight Pass in June 2007. Forest Service officials reported a cause similar to the Moonlight Fire: dozer tracks versus rock.
The Lyman fire in August 2007 occurred after a Howell's employee used a bulldozer to drag rippers over rocky ground on a red-flag-warning day.
The August 2007 Sheep Fire, near Sheep Camp Spring south of the Ponderosa Sky Ranch in Tehama County, was in CalFire jurisdiction and the cause was declared to be "the same tracked bulldozer that kindled the Lyman Fire.
"CalFire's investigator concluded the cause of the fire was bulldozer tracks or rippers contacting rocks," the complaint reads. "The CalFire investigation report noted the lack of extensive foot patrol over the entire area' as a contributing factor to the kindling and escape of the Lyman and Sheep Fires."
Crismon operated the same dozer used at the Greens Fire location at Moonlight in September 2007.
In the causes for action, CalFire alleges that the landowners and Sierra Pacific and Beaty officials retained sufficient control over the activities of Howell that they assumed a duty to ensure an adequate fire watch occurred, and that if one had, "the fire could have been identified and contained by initial attack resources."
CalFire officials also claim the landowner defendants, Beaty and Does 31-40, "knew about the three prior fires kindled by Howell," and that using Howell as the timber operator "created an extreme danger of fire and constituted a public nuisance."
CalFire alleges the landowner defendants, Sierra Pacific, Beaty and Does 1-25, were negligent and failed to supervise and inspect the activities of Howell, Bush and Crismon, and that this failure was the cause "or was a substantial contributing factor in the kindling and escape of the Moonlight Fire."
Finally, there are two actions against Sierra Pacific and Does 26-30, including the allegation they knew the work contracted to Howell was likely to create a peculiar risk of harm to others unless special precautions were taken, which were allegedly provided for in the Sierra Pacific 2007 Fire Plan, and that they "failed to ensure Howell complied with applicable fire safety laws, plans and regulations," also deemed to be a factor in the fire.
Just hiring Howell was negligent, Cal Fire claimed, since the defendants knew or "should have known that Howell kindled three prior equipment-caused fires and that in each instance Howell failed to perform a diligent fire watch as required by law and regulations."
"Defendants have not made payment, and the whole of the $8,101,901.80 owed remains due and unpaid," the complaint reads just before the final prayer for relief, which may increase the amount owed to include interest and additional investigative, administrative and other costs.
The lawsuit was filed Friday, Aug. 7, three days after identical letters of demand for the $8 million were sent to
Brooks Walker III, Leslie Walker and the Red River Forest Products Partnership; W.M. Beaty and Associates; Eunice E. Howell of Howell's Forest Harvesting; and Sierra Pacific Industries.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service investigation of the Moonlight Fire continues. CalFire's claims do not include any federal costs.
"Investigations of this depth and breadth always take a number of years to unfold, and this one will be no different," said Forest Service Public Affairs Officer LeeAnne Schramel, before she acknowledged the frustration of people who are still waiting for information. "But this is a big deal and it's important that we do it right."
Feather Publishing is seeking comments from defendants, and more information should be available for upcoming issues of Feather Publishing's six hometown weekly newspapers.
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