ANDERSON, Calif. — A top resource official for timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries says he hopes a judge’s scathing ruling in the company’s favor will deter overzealous state regulators.
Retired Superior Court Judge Leslie C. Nichols found the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection guilty of “egregious and reprehensible” actions while investigating the 2007 Moonlight Fire and ordered the agency to pay more than $30 million in penalties and legal fees, The Associated Press reported.
Nichols, who was appointed to the case by the state Supreme Court, said Feb. 4 that Cal Fire’s efforts to blame SPI and other landowners were corrupt and tainted, according to the wire service.
Dan Tomascheski, SPI’s vice president in charge of resources, said the company’s relations with the state’s firefighting agency have been positive.
“There are a lot of good, professional and ethical people working at Cal Fire,” Tomascheski said in an interview at the Sierra Cascade Logging Conference here on Feb. 6. “They’re one of the world’s best firefighting agencies and we need their support.
“This was about I think a few individuals who, in pursuing financial gain, let their vision get clouded by the prospect of extracting a large settlement from us,” he said. “I think their investigations going forward are going to be carefully done and be meticulous. There won’t be a rush to judgment. They’ll do their job.”
Nichols said Cal Fire withheld documents for months, destroyed evidence and engaged in a campaign of misdirection with the purpose of recovering money from Sierra Pacific, according to the AP. The judge also criticized the behavior of two lawyers in state Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office, who were representing Cal Fire, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Harris’ office referred requests for comment about the ruling to Cal Fire, whose deputy director told the Capital Press the case isn’t over.
“We vigorously dispute many of the factual and legal findings included in this order and are evaluating our options, including the possibility of an appeal,” Janet Upton said in an email.
The ruling is only the latest amid a bevy of lawsuits that emanated from the Moonlight Fire, which ignited on Labor Day of 2007 and consumed about 46,000 acres of public land in the Plumas and Lassen national forests. The fire burned for two weeks and charred about 65,000 total acres.
In 2012, Sierra Pacific and other landowners agreed to pay the federal government $55 million for damages caused by the fire, which state and federal officials asserted was started by two employees of an SPI contractor who were using bulldozers on a red-flag warning day. SPI also gave up 22,500 acres to the U.S. Forest Service.
However, the company has maintained it was not responsible for the fire and only settled because U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller indicated in pretrial motions that SPI could be held liable even if it didn’t directly cause the fire. The government had originally sought more than $700 million.
Sierra Pacific’s attorney, William Warne, has said the company’s own investigation found that the government had omitted documents, photographs and witnesses’ testimony that might have exonerated the timber company. A video shot an hour after the start of the blaze shows the alleged area of origin was outside the smoke plume, Warne has said.
Cal Fire is appealing Nichols’ dismissal last summer of its lawsuit against SPI for costs incurred in fighting the Moonlight Fire. State officials insist the suit was thrown out on technicalities unrelated to the merits of the case.
Sierra Pacific Industries: http://www.spi-ind.com
Cal Fire: http://www.fire.ca.gov
California Attorney General Kamala Harris: https://oag.ca.gov