A Los Angeles jury on Wednesday ordered two construction companies to reimburse the government for $36.5 million in damages from a 2002 wildfire, in the largest such award and the first-ever damages for environmental harm, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors had accused Merco Construction Engineers Inc and its subcontractor, CB&I Constructors Inc, of negligence in the Copper Fire, started when metal sparks and slag from an electric grinder ignited dry grass and brush near Santa Clarita on June 5, 2002.
The fire quickly spread to the nearby Angeles National Forest, charring 18,000 acres and irreparably harming the habitat of a threatened frog species, prosecutors said.
The government’s lawsuit claimed that a Merco employee had not properly watered down the site where workers were building steel water tanks for a housing development, and that the CB&I employee had directed sparks from the grinder into dry brush.
The federal jury ordered now-defunct Merco and Texas-based CB&I to pay $28.8 million in environmental damage and the rest in reimbursement for firefighting and fire suppression costs.
It was the first time a jury has awarded damages for environmental harm caused by a wildfire, and the largest total award in a federal firefighting cost-recovery case, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Thom Mrozek said.
A spokeswoman for CB&I could not be reached for comment.
California’s wildfire season has grown longer and more costly in recent years, as a 3-year-old drought dries brush and trees on the state’s mountain ranges to tinder.
The state burned through almost $500 million fighting last year’s fires and had spent more than half this fiscal year’s budget before the wildfire season officially began this month.
Much of those costs stemmed from a massive arson that burned a swath of forestland the size of Chicago and killed two firefighters in the mountains east of Los Angeles.