Timber Company Vows to Keep Fighting after Record Moonlight Fire Settlement

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Although both major parties to the record-setting $122.5 million damage settlement of the 2007 Moonlight Fire in Northern California seemed satisfied with the outcome, the fighting might not be over.

“Typically, a settlement signifies the end of a dispute, but this is just the beginning,” Sierra Pacific Industries attorney William Warne stated, as the timber company prepares for Round 2, a fight in Plumas County Superior Court over six lawsuits including the same defendants from the first fight. Settlement figures were announced Tuesday.

The fight between the federal government and Sierra Pacific—one of the nation’s biggest timber companies and the largest private landowner in the U.S.—and others over the 65,000-acre fire in Plumas and Lassen counties was settled last week. About 15 million trees were torched and 46,000 acres of national forest burned.

The government had reportedly been seeking upwards of $700 million, but settled for $55 million in cash and 22,500 acres of Sierra Pacific land. About $7 million of the cash will come from the owner of the land where the fire started and another logging company. The previous largest such settlement was $102 million in 2008 with Union Pacific Railroad Co. for a 2000 wildfire that damaged 52,000 acres near Sacramento.

The government maintained that the fire started when a bulldozer owned by the loggers hired by Sierra Pacific struck a rock, causing a spark that set the fire. The suit alleged that the bulldozer operators left the scene prematurely or they would have been able to prevent the fire. Sierra Pacific disputed the cause of the fire.

Warne said federal officials were “overzealous prosecutors” with a “bounty-hunter mentality” who were “corrupting the investigative process and the law.”  And now that the company has experienced the “government's ongoing misuse of California law and the litigation process, Sierra Pacific is now itself mission driven to expose what actually happened regarding the Moonlight Fire investigation.”

Stories circulated during the course of the lawsuit that a U.S. Forest Service ranger, perhaps stoned on marijuana at his lookout post, missed spotting the fire in its early stages.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Sierra Pacific Corrects Misstatements Made by United States Attorney on Moonlight Fire (Sierra Pacific)

Company, Reaches $122.5 Million Settlement for Starting Wildfire (by Mary Slosson, Reuters)

Largest-Ever Settlement Reached in Northern California Wildfire Case (by Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times)

Moonlight Fire Settlement Ends Epic Legal Battle with Feds (by Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee)

Mammoth Moonlight Fire Claim Settled as Governor Pushes to Limit Such Suits (by Ken Broder, AllGov)

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