Mammoth Moonlight Fire Claim Settled as Governor Pushes to Limit Such Suits

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
The Red Rock lookout


After suing a timber company for $700 million, seven times the previous largest settlement for a California wildfire, the U.S. government reached agreement last week on ending a raucous four-year legal battle over who caused the Moonlight Fire that ravaged 46,000 acres of national forest in Northern California. 

As is customary, terms of the settlement were not announced.

The fire story took a lot of twists and turns since a bulldozer belonging to a Sierra Pacific Industries contractor hit a rock, causing a spark that set off a blaze on Labor Day, September 3, 2007, which scorched 65,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen counties. The fire burned for two weeks, killing 15 million trees, some more than 40 years old.

The U.S. went after Sierra Pacific, one of the nation's biggest timber products companies and the largest private landowner in North America, but the lawsuit took an odd turn when internal documents from the U.S. Forest Service indicated that a forest ranger happened upon the agency’s Red Rock lookout on the day of the fire, 10 miles from where it started, and found the ranger on duty seemingly distracted.

Ranger Karen Justa reported to her superiors that she found Caleb Lief standing on the station catwalk urinating on his bare feet (an old trick for curing athlete’s foot, she was told), while inside the cabin she saw a glass pipe and detected the smell of marijuana. (Justa also claimed she saw marijuana in the cabin on an earlier visit.) In the distance, she noticed what Lief did not: a rather large plume of smoke rising from the direction of the Sierra Pacific property.

The initial Forest Service report in 2009 made no mention of marijuana, which Lief denied was present, and the U.S. filed suit shortly afterward, seeking compensation for habitat and wildlife losses. The marijuana issue didn’t surface until 2011 in a fire-related civil suit.  

Lief was fired in 2009 after Juska claimed he threatened her with a screen door at Red Rock. Documents about the marijuana allegation were filed in the Moonlight Fire suit, but the Forestry Service attempted to have those records sealed.

At first, Sierra Pacific claimed there was a cover-up and indicated it wanted the pot smoking allegation to be part of its liability defense, but eventually said it wouldn’t press for unsealing the documents in deference to the government’s wishes. The agency maintained throughout that the allegations were unproven and irrelevant.  

In the midst of negotiations over the lawsuit, Governor Jerry Brown introduced a proposal in May to limit damages from wildfire lawsuits. The U.S. was seeking seven times more money than the previous largest such settlement, $102 million in 2008 with Union Pacific Railroad Co. for a 2000 wildfire that damaged 52,000 acres near Sacramento. 

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner was not happy. “This proposed legislation appears to be a fairly cynical attempt by Sierra Pacific Industries to undermine the federal government’s position in our pending lawsuit against that company,” he said in a statement. “I hope that members of the Legislature see this measure for what it is: not a solid policy proposal but an attempt by one party to a lawsuit to tilt the playing field in its favor after three years of litigation in federal court.”

Brown’s proposal, which would limit the amount of money government agencies, but not private companies or individuals, can recoup from lawsuits over wildfires was retooled to exempt the Moonlight Fire suit.

But U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak have both publicly criticized Brown’s proposal.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Obama Cabinet Official Criticizes Brown's Wildfire Plan (by Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times)

Feds Settle Suit over Moonlight Fire (by Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee)

CA Wildfire Liability Bill Language Emerges from the Ashes (by Kevin Yamamura, Sacramento Bee)

Wildfire Liability Proposal Not in Natural Resources Budget Bill (by Kevin Yamamura, Sacramento Bee)

Gov. Jerry Brown Seeks to Cap Wildfire Liabilities in California (by Chris Megerian and Anthony York, Los Angeles Times)

New Details in 2007 Moonlight Fire in Plumas and Lassen Counties (by Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee)

Sacramento Federal Judge to Decide Whether to Seal Moonlight Fire Documents (by Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee)

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