USA — For one California man, a little fix-it job in the driveway wound up costing big $1 million, to be exact. This week, the U.S. Department of Justice approved a settlement with a homeowner from North Fork, east of Madera, whose attempt to sharpen a wood splitter with an electric grinder sparked a fire in the Sierra National Forest that burned more than 4,100 acres.
The settlement marks a new chapter in the federal government’s intensive push to collect damages from individuals or businesses whose actions touch off costly forest fires. California also is bolstering its efforts with new state money dedicated to a fire cost recovery team.
“We’re not looking to put people on the streets,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kendall J. Newman, who oversees fire litigation in the Sacramento-based Eastern District. “But we are looking to recover for the taxpayers.”
Last year, the Eastern District — whose sweeping territory includes more than 16 million acres of national forest, or 8.3 percent of the nation’s total — was one of three districts to receive special federal funding for designated “fire recovery litigation teams.” The other teams are located in California’s Central District, based in Los Angeles, and in Utah.
The Eastern District got off to a splashy start last year, when officials announced in July that the government had settled a civil lawsuit with Union Pacific for a record $102 million.
The August 2000 Storrie fire in the Plumas and Lassen National forests burned over three weeks across more than 52,000 acres in Northern California. The government contended that railroad employees had started the fire while repairing tracks in the Feather River Canyon.
Last year’s settlement was the largest recovery in U.S. Forest Service history in a fire case. Before that, the largest settlement in the Eastern District was $14 million, an agreement reached in 2006 with Southern California Edison for the Big Creek fire a dozen years earlier in the Sierra National Forest.
In all cases, the money goes back to the damaged region for restoration projects.
The $1 million recently recovered in the August 2001 North Fork fire doesn’t approach the big-dollar settlements from UP and Southern California Edison, but it makes clear that individuals are not immune — even when they start a fire by accident.
“With the financial and economic crisis facing this country, and an era of trillion-dollar deficits, money is harder to come by,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Wright, assigned to the fire team. “So this is more important than ever before.”
Wright acknowledged that the government is more likely to see large settlements when companies are involved, since individuals may have few assets — a homeless person, for instance, who touches off a fire.
But in the North Fork fire, which burned for over a week, homeowner James Bull III had two homeowners’ insurance policies for $500,000 each, Newman said. The government was able to collect the maximum on both.
Newman said the fire near Yosemite National Park cost an estimated $7.5 million to suppress and an additional $2.5 million in resource damage — the value of lost timber and scenery and reforestation costs. Bull’s house did not burn down, said Newman, describing the homeowner and his insurance companies as “cooperative.”
A man answering the phone this week at the Bull home in North Fork would only say “no comment” before hanging up. Bull’s attorney, Bernard J. McGoldrick of Oakhurst, was out of the country and did not return The Bee’s call.
The state has had its own successes recovering fire costs from individuals and businesses.
The budget signed by the governor last fall included $2.4 million for Cal Fire to hire 13 additional people, dedicated to investigating fires for their cost-recovery potential. The agency oversees 31 million acres of public land, or about a third of the state.
Hoffman said he expects taxpayers to see a 10-to-1 return on their investment in the new team.
“We look at it as a fire prevention tool,” said Tom Hoffman, chief of law enforcement for Cal Fire. “Certainly when people become aware they can be held financially responsible for their actions, that’s a very (strong) fire prevention message.”
While the state has never had a single recovery exceed $100 million, California did collect $10.4 million in a settlement in 2006 with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. In 2001, the Poe fire in Butte County, which the state alleged had resulted from PG&E’s inadequate clearance around a power line near Lake Oroville, consumed more than 8,000 acres and destroyed 47 homes.
When individuals are pursued, said Hoffman, the state generally is eyeing their insurance policies and limits.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Newman said the Eastern District, which extends from the Oregon border as far south as Kern County, has “more than a dozen significant fires in the pipeline” — potentially worth more than $100 million to taxpayers. The active complaints include a civil suit filed last month against Southern California Edison, accused of negligence in the Birch fire of July 2002 in Mono County’s Inyo National Forest.
The government contends that the utility failed to adequately inspect and maintain power lines, or clear away trees and branches in the area, and that sparks ignited a fire. The company has not yet filed its response.
Acting U.S. Attorney Larry Brown, who took over the office this week after McGregor W. Scott stepped down, said the scale of last year’s Storrie fire settlement is “not lost on anyone performing work on public lands in California.”
“These are cherished resources, particularly in California,” he said. “I think all Californians take tremendous pride in their public lands, and it’s our obligation to protect them as best we can.”