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Largest-ever settlement reached in Northern California wildfire case

July 17, 2012 | 12:38 pm

Moonlight fire

One of the most devastating blazes in California history has led to the country's largest-ever settlement in a wildfire case: Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that they reached a $122.5 million settlement for a fire that torched 65,000 acres in Northern California in 2007.

The settlement for the Moonlight Fire, which includes $55 million cash and $67.5 million in land that will be turned over to the federal government, is the result of a closely watched court battle between federal prosecutors in Sacramento and Sierra Pacific, the state's largest timber company.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the timber industry are pushing a new law to curb the amount of money government agencies can collect for wildfires caused by negligence, an effort the federal government has fought.

Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, was concerned the legislation could affect the Moonlight fire case, but he said the settlement was unaffected by ongoing discussions about the proposed law. Legislators are expected to consider a modified version of the proposal next month.

To end the case, Sierra Pacific will offer up 22,500 acres of land and pay $47 million of the cash settlement. The owners and managers of the land where the fire started will pay $7 million, and the logging contractor accused of starting the blaze will pay $1 million.

The companies could have been on the hook for more than $600 million total, but the settlement is still larger than the previous record of $102 million in 2008.

Wagner said the money may not completely cover the cost of rehabilitating the area, which includes national forests in Plumas and Lassen counties north of Lake Tahoe. The blaze destroyed 15 million trees on public land, federal officials said.

"The fire was a devastating blow to national forest land here in California," Wagner said. "Some of what was lost in that fire will not return for over a century."

ALSO:

Obama cabinet official criticizes Brown's wildfire plan

U.S. attorney lobbies against limits on wildfire liability

Gov. Jerry Brown seeks to cap wildfire liabilities in California

-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento
twitter.com/chrismegerian

Photo: A view of the forests scorched by the Moonlight fire in 2007. Credit: U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento

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