Fires in National Forests Net $50M in Settlements

     (CN) – Pacific Gas & Electric and its contractors agreed to pay a combined $50.5 million in connection to two wildfires that burned thousands of acres of national forest land.
     The deals settled the U.S. government’s claims over the so-called Power Fire of 2004 that burned 13,000 acres of Eldorado National Forest, and a 2008 blaze known as the Whiskey Fire that burned more than 5,000 acres of Mendocino National Forest.
     U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said the fires could have easily been avoided.
     “We hope that in addition to helping repair the long-term damage caused by the fires, these settlements will reinforce the need to be safe when conducting risky operations in and around our national forests,” Wagner said in a statement. “The United States will continue to aggressively pursue compensation from those whose carelessness damages our treasured natural resources.”
     PG&E agreed to pay $45 million for the Power Fire, which started as a result of a crew of workers smoking cigarettes in a heavily wooded area with extreme hazardous fire conditions. The VCS Sub Inc.-operated crew had been trimming trees and brush around a PG&E distribution line, government lawyers said.
     “Hundreds of firefighters battled the fire for 17 days at a total cost of approximately $8.46 million,” according to the Justice Department’s statement. “All told, the fire scorched more than 13,000 acres of national forest land, consuming more than 180 million board feet of commercially harvestable public timber – enough to build more than 9,500 single-family homes.”
     The fire also damaged protected habitats for the northern spotted owl, caused harmful erosion into watersheds, and destroyed artifacts in Native American historical sites. The United States sought damages against PG&E and VCS for the fire in August 2012.
     Both companies deny liability for the fire, but agreed to settle the case.
     In a separate settlement, PG&E, ACRT Inc. and Davey Tree Surgery agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle a dispute over their liability for the Whiskey Fire.
     The fire started “when PG&E transmission lines contacted branches of a gray pine tree that was less than two feet away from the line, well under the minimum amount of clearance required by state law,” government lawyers said. “The branches ignited and dropped to the ground, which in turn ignited surrounding vegetation, causing a fire lasting eight days and burning 5,025 acres of National Forest System lands.”
     The U.S. sued PG&E and its contractors for their failure to trim or remove the hazardous tree that started the fire. The companies deny liability for the fire, which cost nearly $5 million to suppress, but agreed to settle the dispute.
     “These settlement funds are important to helping achieve our ecological restoration goals for those forests impacted by these fires,” U.S. Forest Service’s Regional Forester Randy Moore said in the statement.

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