CAL FIRE’s Moonlight Fire saga continues

Since January, 2013 a battle has been going on in the court system between the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service, and Sierra Pacific Industries Inc., a Redding, California lumber company. CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service claimed the company was responsible for starting the Moonlight Fire that burned about 65,000 acres in 2007 (map), including 46,000 acres in the Plumas and Lassen National Forests in the northern part of the state.

Below is a portion of an update from the Wall Street Journal:

A California timber company accused of starting a 102-square-mile wildfire seven years ago is seeking to undo a $47 million legal settlement because of alleged misdeeds by investigators and prosecutors.

Sierra Pacific Industries filed hundreds of pages of court documents Thursday in federal court seeking to reopen a case settled in 2012. The settlement also included Sierra Pacific transferring 22,500 acres of land to the state of California.

State and federal prosecutors and investigators concluded that the state’s largest timber company was responsible for a 2007 wildfire that consumed 40,000 acres of national forest in Northern California, as well as another 25,000 acres.

A state court judge in February found that California officials lied and hid evidence, and the judge ordered the state to pay the company $30 million. The company is citing the same evidence to reopen the federal case.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is appealing the state judge’s decision…

An article in the Modesto Bee includes some shocking charges.

…On Thursday, [Sierra Pacific] took the rare step of asking [Judge Kimberly] Mueller to “vacate the settlement” due to “fraud upon the court.”

Sierra Pacific has already paid the government $29 million under the terms of the settlement, with another $3 million payment due Jan. 1. It also has conveyed approximately 1,500 acres of its property to the government, owing roughly 21,000 more acres.

The company contends federal prosecutors sat by in pretrial depositions and knowingly allowed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and U.S. Forest Service investigators to “repeatedly lie under oath about the very foundation of their investigation.”

It insists in its motion that the investigators’ origin-and-cause report is a fraudulent document that omits or distorts all information that might have hurt the government’s case.

CAL FIRE was also involved in questionable behavior before the case first went to trial. In their billing sent to Sierra Pacific in 2009, they demanded the company make two payments; one of $7.7 million to the state, and another for $400,000 to an account belonging to a nonprofit organization administered by CAL FIRE. The organization that held the money charged CAL FIRE 18 percent interest. The funds in that account had been used for off the books purchases of items such as 600 digital cameras and 26 evidence sheds. In Sierra Pacific’s investigation into CAL FIRE’s demand for payment, they discovered the very unusual account, named “Wildland Fire Investigation Training and Equipment Fund”, sometimes referred to as “WiFiter”.

That account, as we wrote in January of 2013, was not exactly secret, however it was not commonly known that it was an off-the-books account not subject to the standard state regulations for managing and spending money. We found a memo from former CAL FIRE Director Walters, apparently written in 2009, summarizing the year’s fire season in which he mentioned the account:

Office of Program Accountability (OPA) finalized three audits (Volcan Incident, Wildland Fire Investigation Training and Equipment Fund, and Indirect Cost PCA 99200)…

The current Director of CAL FIRE, Ken Pemlott froze the fund in August, 2012 after, according to the LA Times, “receiving a briefing from his staff, said Janet Upton, a Cal Fire spokeswoman”.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

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