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Cost of fire goes beyond timber

U.S. Forest Service gets $102 million in landmark settlement that broadens liability for sparking blazes.

July 23, 2008|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Union Pacific Railroad Co. has agreed to pay $102 million to the U.S. Forest Service for a devastating 2000 wildfire north of Sacramento in a landmark settlement that dramatically increases the stakes in punishing those responsible for setting forest fires.

The settlement announced Tuesday marks the most money the U.S. Forest Service has ever received in a lawsuit and was undergirded by a first-of-its-kind ruling by a federal judge, officials said.

U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. said Union Pacific was not only responsible for the cost of firefighting and lost timber, but also damage to young growth, soil, wildlife, habitat, recreational uses and views. Damrell also ruled that the forest was more valuable because it was protected against logging by Congress.

Federal prosecutors said the settlement should send a message that the government is serious about prosecuting those who spark wildfires -- even by accident.

"We want those individuals or corporations operating lawfully in our national forests to be on notice," said U.S. Atty. McGregor W. Scott. "We're paying attention and very focused about regaining, not just [fire] suppression costs, but lost resources to the country."

Five Union Pacific workers were accused of neglecting safety precautions when using power tools to repair track on Aug. 17, 2000, in Plumas National Forest. By failing to use spark shields and clear the area of flammable material, smoldering bits of metal were able to ignite a blaze that consumed 52,000 acres within the Plumas and Lassen national forests over three weeks, federal officials said.

A Union Pacific spokeswoman Tuesday said the settlement was reached to put the so-called Storrie fire behind them and it was agreed upon without any admission of liability on the part of its crew. She said the crew had extinguished the flames when the fire started, but a passing train reignited it.

"We feel our employees did all the right things," Zoe Richmond said. "These were extraordinary circumstances. . . . This happened in 2000. It was a long time ago and it's time for us to move on."

Legal experts said the settlement has broad implications because of the judge's view of the forest's value and Union Pacific's high level of liability in setting the blaze.

"It's an important development in the law to have courts saying decisions aren't limited to the value of timber," said Sean Hecht, executive director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center. "A calculation is now allowed to look at the value of wildlife and the ecosystem. It seems to me that's the correct view, otherwise it's like saying there's no consequence to someone burning land that didn't have salable timber."

More than 2,500 firefighters battled the flames without any loss of life or structure damage at a cost of $22 million. But U.S. attorneys argued that the actual cost of the blaze far exceeded just the firefighting resources and loss of valuable trees.

After recovering the costs of fighting the fire, $80 million will go to restoring landscapes and repairing ecological damage. Trees will be replanted, trails and roads improved and dangerous woody fuels cleared, officials said.

"The money received will go directly to remedy and heal the harm to these forests," said John Heil, a Forest Service spokesman.

Heil said a first payment of $35 million was received July 2, and a second is scheduled for Aug. 15. A final payment of $32 million is set for Oct. 15. Union Pacific's operating revenue in 2007 was $16.3 billion.

Authorities have heightened their efforts to recover costs associated with wildfires and punish those responsible. The Department of Justice established Fire Recovery Teams in California and Utah this year to bolster their ability to seek damages.

The $102-million figure marks a sizable increase from the previous record settlement targeting the origins of a wildfire -- $14 million in 2006 paid by Southern California Edison for its role in the 1994 Big Creek fire in the Sierra National Forest, officials said.

Over a five-year period, about two-thirds of state wildfires were started accidentally by humans, natural causes or unsafe use of equipment, according to a study by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

One-third were triggered by power tools and equipment. Arsonists were responsible for 7%.

Scott said the settlement sends a clear message that the government will aggressively argue its case.

"It will provide solid ground to pursue earlier resolutions to these cases," Scott said. "The law is on our side now and it provides motivation for our worthy opponents to settle as early as possible."

Hecht said the big question is how prosecutors can deal with fire starters who don't have the deep pockets of a railroad.

"It's exciting pursuing cases like this," Hecht said. "At the same time, it's important to remember things that inherently don't have monetary values like water quality violations."

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david.pierson@latimes.com

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