Company's patrol failed to do job, government says

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

ANDERSON, Calif. -- A legal settlement between timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries and the federal government over a 2007 wildfire in northeastern California has ignited a crossfire of accusations.

Sierra Pacific and other landowners agreed to pay the government $55 million for damages caused by the Moonlight Fire, which began on private land in Plumas County and burned about 65,000 acres, the two parties announced July 17.

SPI will also give up 22,500 acres to the U.S. Forest Service. U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner estimated the settlement's value to be at least $122.5 million -- a fraction of the more than $700 million the government originally sought.

The settlement follows nearly three years of litigation for which a jury trial before U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller was set to begin July 9 in Sacramento. About a half-dozen state cases related to the fire are still pending.

Terms of the pact were unveiled in dueling press conferences by Wagner and SPI's Sacramento-based attorney, William Warne, who accused federal investigators of having a "bounty-hunter mentality" that threatens jobs and property rights of Californians.

"We believe the investigators in this particular fire made numerous missteps and violated their training," Warne told reporters in a conference call. "They started with certain defendants in mind, which is called expectation bias, and as a consequence of their expectation bias, they engaged in an investigation to support their initial conclusions."

Warne said Sierra Pacific's own investigation found that the government had omitted documents, photographs and witnesses' testimony that might have exonerated the timber company.

The Moonlight Fire was ignited on Labor Day in 2007 and burned for more than two weeks, consuming about 46,000 acres of public land in the Plumas and Lassen national forests.

The government asserts the fire was started by two employees of an SPI contractor, Howell's Forest Harvesting, who were operating bulldozers on a red-flag warning day and created sparks when the track or blade of one of the bulldozers struck a rock.

The fire went undetected because the employees didn't do their company-required fire patrol after shutdown, Wagner's office contends. Instead, the designated fire watch left the work area to get a soda and returned over an hour later to a 100-foot wall of smoke, the government asserts.

"The Moonlight Fire was a devastating blow to national forest land here in California," Wagner said in a statement. "What was lost was priceless and will not return for over a century. The recovery in this case will help start the process of making the public whole."

Sierra Pacific denies that its operations caused the fire. A video shot an hour after the start of the blaze shows the alleged area of origin was outside the smoke plume, Warne said.

The company decided to settle after the judge indicated in pretrial motions that SPI could be held liable even if it didn't directly cause the fire, Warne said.

Warne and Mark Pawlicki, SPI's director of corporate affairs, said the company will use the case in its call for state lawmakers to reform damage amounts related to wildfires. Gov. Jerry Brown has asked lawmakers to limit such awards, drawing criticism from Wagner and other government officials.

The Moonlight Fire settlement comes after an announcement in March that the U.S. attorney's office had settled a pair of other wildfire cases with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for $29.5 million.

Online

Sierra Pacific Industries: http://www.spi-ind.com/

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner: http://www.justice.gov/usao/cae/index.html

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