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Wildfire proposal dropped from budget

June 26, 2012 |  4:16 pm

Helicopter fire

A proposal to limit legal liability for people who start wildfires has been dropped from the budget after generating controversy from Sacramento to Washington, D.C.

However, sources said negotiations are ongoing, and the issue can still be revived after the state's spending plan is finalized this week.

Gov. Jerry Brown has pushed to cap the amount of money government agencies could recover from lawsuits over wildfires. The proposal has been backed by timber companies, who accuse the federal government of seeking inflated payouts several times the actual value of the damaged land.

Brown's proposal came at a sensitive time. The U.S. attorney in Sacramento, Benjamin Wagner, is suing Sierra Pacific Industries, the state's largest timber company, for alleged negligence in the 2007 Moonlight fire. The company could be on the hook for $600 million, and the civil trial is scheduled to start July 2, right after the budget is scheduled to go into effect.

Wagner criticized the proposal as "a fairly cynical attempt by Sierra Pacific Industries to undermine the federal government's position." His concerns were echoed by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who wrote in a letter to Brown that “the proposal could shortchange the public.”

The proposal faced an uncertain future in the state Senate, where Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) expressed reservations about a bill that could affect an ongoing lawsuit.

RELATED:

U.S. attorney lobbies against limits on wildfire liability

Gov. Jerry Brown seeks to cap wildfire liabilities in California

U.S. agriculture secretary wants Brown to drop wildfire proposal

-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento
twitter.com/chrismegerian

Photo: A helicopter helps contain a 125-acre brush fire in Acton in May. Credit: Maya Sugarman/The Antelope Valley Press

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