Fire Recovery Litigation Teams

The U. S. Department of Justice and the state of California’s CalFire are assigning additional personnel to investigate and prosecute individuals and companies who start wildland fires. The DOJ has supplied special funding for “fire recovery litigation teams” in three of their districts in Utah, central California, and the Sacramento area.

Last year the DOJ settled a record $102 million civil lawsuit with the Union Pacific railroad for starting the 52,000 acre Storrie fire in the Plumas and Lassen National Forests in 2000. CalFire expects a 10-to-1 return on their investment of $2.4 million to hire 13 additional fire investigators dedicated to cost-recovery.

The Sacramento Bee has an article on the subject that is on the front page of their dead-tree edition today. Here is an excerpt:

For one California man, a little fix-it job in the driveway wound up costing big – $1 million, to be exact.

This week, the U.S. Department of Justice approved a settlement with a homeowner from North Fork, east of Madera, whose attempt to sharpen a wood splitter with an electric grinder sparked (the North Fork) fire in the Sierra National Forest that burned more than 4,100 acres.

The settlement marks a new chapter in the federal government’s intensive push to collect damages from individuals or businesses whose actions touch off costly forest fires. California also is bolstering its efforts with new state money dedicated to a fire cost recovery team.

“We’re not looking to put people on the streets,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kendall J. Newman, who oversees fire litigation in the Sacramento-based Eastern District. “But we are looking to recover for the taxpayers.”

Last year, the Eastern District – whose sweeping territory includes more than 16 million acres of national forest, or 8.3 percent of the nation’s total – was one of three districts to receive special federal funding for designated “fire recovery litigation teams.” The other teams are located in California’s Central District, based in Los Angeles, and in Utah.