Moonlight Fire ruling spooks private land owners

New legislation tightens up damage calculations
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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A $122.5 million settlement between the Federal Government and Sierra Pacific Industries over the Moonlight Fire has private landowners reevaluating whether or not they want to continue allowing the public on their property.

Under the settlement last month, Sierra Pacific will pay $55 million in cash to the Federal Government and hand over 22,500 acres of its land to the US Forest Service. The Federal Government sued Sierra Pacific, a logging company, for allegedly starting the Moonlight Fire on Labor Day 2007.

The Moonlight Fire started in Lassen County near Westwood and burnt 65,000 acres, including 46,000 acres of National Forest land.

In a pretrial ruling, a judge stated that in cases where a wildfire starts on privately owned land it does not matter how it was caused or by whom, the private landowner will be held liable for any damage should the fire spread to public land.

Lindsey Nitta, a spokesperson for the California Forestry Association, said under that precedent, private landowners have started to reevaluate whether or not to continue to be open to the public.

"So anyone that comes on your land, whether they have a permit or if they're trespassing, if they start a fire and it travels onto public land you're on the hook for the damages it caused," Nitta said.

The California Forestry Association has teamed up with various recreation groups, like the Mule Deer Foundation, California Deer Foundation, Klamath Alliance for Resources and Environment, and the California Outdoors Heritage Alliance.

They want a more specific process of accountability when private landowners are held liable to prevent what California Forestry Association President David Bischel calls in a press release "extraordinary legal risk" and "serious financial consequences."

Mark Pawlicki, director of corporate affairs and sustainability with Sierra Pacific, said his company owns 1.65 million acres of land throughout California, including some near Auburn. He said his company allows public access for recreation currently but almost changed after the pretrial ruling.

"We had considered barring all recreational access to our land when the Moonlight Fire settlement came about and that's because the court ruled that we could be liable for wildfires even if we didn't start them," Pawlicki said. "So we were worried that if someone was recreating on our land and started a fire and it jumped onto federal land we would be held liable."

That was before the passage of Assembly Bill 1492. The bill was passed recently, but has not yet been signed by the governor.

If signed, the law still holds private landowners liable for any fire that starts on their land and moves to federal land, but Pawlicki said it makes the process of assessing and calculating damages caused by fires more specific.

"It will ensure us in the future if there is a fire more reasonable calculations will be used when the government assesses damages," Pawlicki said.

Assembly Bill 1492 does not place a cap on the amount that can be collected by the Federal Government.

"We think it will be beneficial to all private landowners. Timberlands, utilities, ranches, they will all benefit from this legislation," Pawlicki said.

Contact Amber Marra at Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.