News and Press Releases

United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner
Eastern District of California

U.S. Secures $50.5 Million in Settlements for Fires in Eldorado and Mendocino National Forests

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, June 6, 2013
 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The United States has settled two lawsuits seeking recovery against PG&E and its contractors for wildfires that scorched thousands of acres of national forest land, United States Attorney Benjamin Wagner announced today. The fires — known as the “Power Fire” and the “Whiskey Fire” — collectively burned more than 18,000 acres of national forest. These settlements, totaling $50.5 million, are a significant step toward restoring the precious national resources destroyed by the fires.

“Like many forest fires, both the Power Fire and the Whiskey Fire could have easily been avoided,” said U.S. Attorney Wagner. “We hope that in addition to helping repair the long-term damage caused by the fires, these settlements will reinforce the need to be safe when conducting risky operations in and around our national forests. The United States will continue to aggressively pursue compensation from those whose carelessness damages our treasured natural resources.”

U.S. Forest Service’s Regional Forester Randy Moore said: “These settlement funds are important to helping achieve our ecological restoration goals for those forests impacted by these fires.”

The Power Fire ignited on October 6, 2004, in the Eldorado National Forest in Amador County in a remote location near the Salt Springs Reservoir. The fire started as a result of cigarette smoking by a crew of workers hired to trim trees and brush around a PG&E distribution line. The crew, operated by VCS Sub Inc. (doing business as “Provco”), smoked in a heavily wooded area under extremely hazardous fire conditions, with the relative humidity estimated at below 5 percent. PG&E and Provco deny liability for the Power Fire.

The Power Fire burned predominately at high severity in an area dominated by old growth forest. Hundreds of firefighters battled the fire for 17 days at a total cost of approximately $8.46 million. All told, the fire scorched more than 13,000 acres of national forest land, consuming more than 180 million board feet of commercially harvestable public timber — enough to build more than 9,500 single-family homes. In addition to killing trees, the fire caused extensive damage to environmental resources, decimating protected habitat for sensitive species such as the northern spotted owl, causing harmful erosion into watersheds, and destroying irreplaceable artifacts in protected Native American historical sites. A complaint was filed in August 2012.

In a settlement agreement filed today, the defendants agreed to settle the case for $45 million. The defendants deny liability for the fire. Assistant United States Attorney Richard M. Elias prosecuted the case.

The Whiskey Fire ignited on June 12, 2008, on Mendocino National Forest land in Tehama County when PG&E transmission lines contacted branches of a gray pine tree that was less than two feet away from the line, well under the minimum amount of clearance required by state law. The branches ignited and dropped to the ground, which in turn ignited surrounding vegetation, causing a fire lasting eight days and burning 5,025 acres of National Forest System lands. The fire cost nearly $5 million to suppress. The United States sought compensation from PG&E and its contractors, ACRT Inc. and Davey Tree Surgery Company, for their failure to trim or remove the hazardous tree that started the fire.

Under the settlement announced today, PG&E, ACRT and Davey Tree have agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle the dispute. They deny liability for the fire. Assistant United States Attorney Colleen Kennedy handled the case.

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