Federal government seeks to recover $25 million in costs for the 2013 Mountain Fire

Mountain Fire, from Hwy 74
Mountain Fire, from Hwy 74, July 17, 2013. USFS Photo by Sam Wu.

The United States federal government has filed suit to recover the costs of the suppression and damage caused by the 2013 Mountain Fire that burned 27,500 acres. Most of the fire was in the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California. The lawsuit seeks nearly $25 million in damages from the owner of a Mountain Center residence and the property’s caretakers for alleged negligence that led to the fire.

The civil complaint alleges negligence and violations of California law as being the cause of the fire that started on July 15, 2013, and burned a large swath of the San Jacinto Mountains, for a time threatening the town of Idyllwild and forcing over 5,000 residents to evacuate. An investigation determined that the fire started when an electrical discharge inside of an improperly maintained electrical junction box “shot sparks and hot material out of the box and onto dry ground vegetation below,” according to the lawsuit.

Map of Mountain Fire
Incident Management Team map of Mountain Fire, July 18, 2013 a few days before the spread was stopped.

The Mountain Fire started on property known as Gibraltar West that is owned by Tarek M. Al-Shawaf, who is the lead defendant in the lawsuit.

The defendants had a duty “to properly inspect and maintain their electrical equipment, electrical wires, and electrical junction boxes to ensure that they were safe, properly secured, and clear from dangerous conditions,” the complaint alleges.

“In addition to endangering countless lives, including those of firefighters who battle these large-scale blazes, the failure to properly manage the property and the electrical equipment on the property in this case cost taxpayers approximately $24 million dollars,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker.

The complaint specifically alleges that the Forest Service spent more than $15 million to fight the fire, that the fire caused more than $9 million in damages to natural resources, and that more than $300,000 had to be spent to perform emergency rehabilitation.

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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.