US Forest Service Sues CA Property Owner for $25 Million for Wildland Fire

The US Forest Service has filed suit against a California property owner seeking almost $25 million in compensation for the Mountain Fire in 2013. The suit alleges that negligence in maintaining an electrical box on the property caused the fire that burned 27,531 acres, including 15,535 acres of US Forest Service lands in the San Bernardino National Forest.

The suit was filed last Thursday by the US Attorney Eileen M. Decker in US District Court for the Central District of California. Named as defendants are the property owner, Tarek M. Al-Shawaf, and two of his employees, James D. Nowlin and Donna L. Nowlin. The complaint alleges that the Nowlins were caretakers of the property.

The Mountain Fire destroyed 23 structures, and required 260 engines, 20 helicopters, 12 fix wing aircraft, and 3500 firefighters before being brought under control. According to the complaint:

  • Investigators determined that the Mountain Fire ignited in a plastic electrical junction box on the Gibraltar West property.
  • The junction box housed electrical wires running from the electrical panel of the main house on the property to a water well on the property.
  • The junction box’s lid was warped, not properly secured, and ajar.
  • As a result, an electrical discharge inside the box shot sparks and hot material out of the box and onto dry ground vegetation below.
  • At all times relevant to the complaint, the electrical junction box and the electrical wires from the property’s main house to the well were owned, maintained, and controlled by defendants…
  • The ignition of the Mountain Fire was an incident of a kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence.
  • It was caused by activity within the exclusive control of the defendants.

The suit contains five counts:

  1. Negligence
  2. Liability under California Public Resources Code § 4435,
  3. Liability under California Health & Safety Code §§ 13001 & 13007–13009.1; California Civil Code § 3287)
  4. Trespass by fire
  5. Interest and penalties under California Health and Safety Code §§ 13009 & 13009.1 and 31 U.S.C. § 3717

The US claims it expended roughly $15 million in direct costs, $9 million in property damages, and $300,000 in “emergency rehabilitation” costs.

Here is a copy of the complaint: US v Tarek M. Al-Shawaf

The suit is similar to one filed a year ago by the state of California on behalf of CalFire seeking to recoup roughly the same amount in damages. Here is more on that suit.

In a media release US Attorney Decker wrote:

  • Property owners and their agents have a responsibility to ensure that property under their control is maintained in a safe fashion.
  • 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

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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