Fire Agencies Seek Over $120 Million in Damages for Two California Wildland Fires

Two wildland fire related lawsuits are in the Fire Law headlines, brought by the nation’s two largest wildland firefighting agencies, the US Forest Service and CalFire. The US Forest Service filed suit against Southern California Edison and Utility Tree Service over the Bobcat Fire that occurred in 2020. The fire burned over 114,000 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County.

The USFS claims that Southern California Editon and the tree service failed to “properly maintain trees that came into contact with power lines” which caused the blaze. Quoting from the complaint:

  • The fire threatened 6,235 structures, destroyed 171 structures, damaged 47 structures, destroyed 178 vehicles, and caused many people to evacuate from their homes.
  • The public has been prevented from recreating on the more than 100 miles of popular system trails and in numerous campgrounds within the burn area in the nearly three years following the fire.
  • The fire effects have been, and will be, detrimental to habitats and wildlife, including the federally endangered wildlife-mountain yellow- legged frog and other federally threatened fish and birds.
  • The fire also damaged and destroyed irreplaceable cultural and heritage resources.
  • SCE had non-delegable statutory and regulatory duties to properly inspect and maintain the areas through which its power lines passed to ensure that they were safe and clear from dangerous conditions, specifically including but not limited to hazardous trees. Specific non-delegable duties are set forth in California Public Resources Code § 4293 and regulations promulgated thereunder.
  • The power lines that ignited the Bobcat Fire are a “device which may kindle a fire” within the meaning of California Public Resources Code § 4435.
  • Pursuant to California Public Resources Code § 4435, the ignition of the Bobcat Fire by SCE’s power lines is prima facie evidence of SCE’s negligence in the maintenance, operation, or use of the power lines.
  • SCE entered into a Master Services Agreement whereby UTS agreed to perform vegetation maintenance and electrical line clearance services in and around the area where the Bobcat Fire ignited.
  • SCE operated and maintained the subject power lines that caused the Bobcat Fire on National Forest System lands pursuant to a Special Use Permit (“SUP”) issued by the Forest Service.
  • SCE accepted all of the terms and conditions contained in the SUP.
  • SCE was obligated to do everything reasonably within its power and require its employees and contractors to do everything reasonably within its power, to prevent and suppress fires on or near lands occupied under the SUP.
  • SCE and UTS knew or should have known about the potential danger posed by the tree that contacted the subject power lines but took no action to prevent it from subsequently contacting the subject lines.
  • The Bobcat Fire originated from SCE’s operation and/or use of its power lines and SCE and UTS’s negligence in maintaining trees around those lines. Defendants’ negligence was a substantial factor in proximately causing the damages sustained by the United States.
  • SCE failed to properly maintain its power lines in or around the area where the Bobcat Fire ignited.
  • The Forest Service suppressed the Bobcat Fire at substantial cost to the United States.
  • As a result of its efforts to extinguish the Bobcat Fire, the Forest Service sustained fire suppression costs in excess of $56 million dollars.
  • It also incurred property and natural resource damages of over $65 million dollars and burned area emergency response (BAER) costs of more than $769,000 dollars.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

In the second suit, CalFire has filed suit against G.J. Gentry General Engineering, Inc. and Garrett John Gentry seeking just over $1 million in firefighting costs for the South Fire that occurred in 2021. Investigators concluded that Gentry personnel were operating an excavator with metal tracks that created spark igniting nearby grass. The fire burned 680 acres and destroyed 28 structures before CalFire was able to contain it.

CalFire’s costs came to $1,077,407.12. The suit was filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court. Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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