Insurance company files suit against Chrysler over Chariot Fire

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S-2T dropping near electronic site
An S-2T dropping near the electronic site on Mt. Laguna, California at 3:29 pm July 8, 2013 during the Chariot Fire. HPWREN photo.

An insurance company has filed a lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler claiming a Jeep Wrangler operated by the Bureau of Land Management ignited the Chariot Fire.

The fire started July 6, 2013 40 miles east of San Diego near the Butterfield Ranch in the Anza-Borrego Desert, 3,000 vertical feet below the community of Mt. Laguna. Managed by CAL FIRE, two days later it burned into the Cleveland National Forest not far from the Mt. Laguna Engine Station (where I used to work). The fire blackened 7,000 acres and destroyed 149 structures — most of which were at the Al Bahr Shrine Camp in the National Forest.

CAL FIRE report about the Chariot Fire
Photo from CAL FIRE report about the Chariot Fire. CAL FIRE photo.

The complaint by insurance company USAA claims the fire started when brush trapped by a skid plate was ignited by the catalytic converters, exhaust system, engine block and other parts of the Jeep. The fire burned the plastic incoming gas line to the engine compartment and caused gas to leak from the line, further fueling the blaze. The suit says the driver, BLM employee Jason Peters, kept driving across dry brush while the Jeep was on fire, spreading the blaze.

Chrysler recalled about 67,000 2009 Jeep Wranglers for defective skid plates. The BLM vehicle was a 2010 model, which has not been recalled.

Mr. Peters, who did not fully cooperate with the CAL FIRE investigation, said he drove the Jeep to the Butterfield Ranch store, parked it and went inside leaving the vehicle idling. When he came back outside his Jeep was on fire. Initially he said he didn’t arrive at the fire until after it started. The CAL FIRE report suggests the likely scenario is that “the fire originated from the vehicle driven by Jason Peters going through tall brush, either dropping burning brush into a receptive fuel bed, or a potential failed fuel line spreading fire on a receptive fuel bed.”

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.