SACRAMENTO (CN) – Union Pacific agreed to pay an unprecedented $102 million to the U.S. Forest Service for starting a wildfire north of Sacramento in 2000 while doing track repair work.
U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell ruled in February that the service could seek greater damages than the timber value and $22 million in firefighting costs for the so-called “Storrie Fire.” He said Union Pacific could be held liable for young growth, soil, wildlife, habitat, recreational and view loss on the 52,000 burned acres.
Union Pacific crew members sparked the fire when they allowed smoldering metal bits to spray from power tools without using shields or clearing flammable material on Aug. 17, 2000 in Plumas National Forest. About 2,500 firefighters fought the fire over the next three weeks as it spread through the Plumas and Lassen National Forests, an area that Congress protected from logging.
Omaha-based Union Pacific admitted no guilt for starting the fire, claiming that its employees put out the flames, which were then reignited by a passing train.
The landmark action, which marks the highest the Forest Service has been paid in a lawsuit, puts anyone who causes forest fires – even accidentally – at a greater risk for damages.
The previous high settlement was $14 million paid by Southern California Edison for the 1994 Big Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest.
Settlement funds will be used for landscape and ecological restoration, including tree replanting and trail improvements.