U.S. attorney blasts wildfire proposal
Gov. Jerry Brown’s new budget proposal includes a provision that would limit legal liability for causing wildfires, a clause that the U.S. attorney in Sacramento on Thursday blasted as a “fairly cynical attempt” to benefit the powerful timber industry.
The proposal comes as the federal government is suing Sierra Pacific Industries, the state’s largest timber company, for allegedly contributing to the 2007 Moonlight fire, which scorched 65,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen counties. The civil trial is scheduled to start on July 2.
“This proposed legislation appears to be a fairly cynical attempt by Sierra Pacific Industries to undermine the federal government’s position in our pending lawsuit against that company,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner in a statement. “I hope that members of the Legislature see this measure for what it is: not a solid policy proposal but an attempt by one party to a lawsuit to tilt the playing field in its favor after three years of litigation in federal court.”
Brown's proposal covers some of the same ground as a bill introduced by Assemblyman Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) earlier this year. That bill, which would also limit legal liability for wildfires, is supported by the influential insurance industry, which has given $225,000 to Brown’s proposed November ballot measure that would raise state taxes.
The timber industry has also reached into its pockets to support Brown’s tax campaign. Sierra Pacific has donated $10,000, and the California Forestry Assn. and Green Diamond Resource Company have pitched in another $15,000.
The Brown administration and Sierra Pacific did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Lea-Ann Tratton, spokeswoman for the Consumer Attorneys of California, which opposes limits to legal liability, said there are ongoing negotiations in hopes any deal does not affect pending lawsuits.
The Moonlight fire started on land owned by Sierra Pacific, according to the federal government’s lawsuit, which called it an “incident of the kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence.”
The federal government is seeking nearly $200 million to pay for stopping the fire and rehabilitating the land, as well as other costs. The largest wildfire settlement ever reached by the federal government was $102 million, which was paid by Union Pacific Railroad for the 2000 Storrie fire north of Sacramento.
-- Chris Megerian and Anthony York in Sacramento
Photo: A wildfire in Southern California last year. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times