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2 Ventura County companies to pay millions in connection with 2003 Piru fire

September 24, 2010 |  6:34 pm

Two Ventura County companies have agreed to pay the federal government more than $5.4 million in compensation after they allegedly started a wildfire that burned more than 63,000 acres, about half of it in the Los Padres National Forest, according to court papers filed Friday.

In a civil lawsuit filed last year, federal prosecutors alleged that the two companies started the 2003 Piru fire when they were doing construction work on a boat launch in the Lake Piru Recreation Area. Company employees ignited the fire when sparks from a cutting tool ignited dry brush nearby. They did not have a fire extinguisher on hand as they should have, prosecutors alleged.

In the settlement agreement, Berry Engineering General Contractors Inc. agreed to pay $5 million to compensate the U.S. Forest Service, which suppressed the fire and provided emergency rehabilitation in the burn area.

Mendez Concrete, a Santa Paula subcontractor on the project for the United Water Conservation District, agreed to pay $447,423.

Both companies agreed to pay the settlement without admitting wrongdoing.

“As wildfire season begins in drought-ravaged Southern California, everyone who lives in, works in or uses public lands should be especially vigilant,” U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr. said in a statement. “In the case of the Piru Fire, the negligence of construction workers led to a fire…. Even though the fire was not the result of arson, those responsible must pay the price.”

--Teresa Watanabe