SACRAMENTO, Calif - The United States has settled a major lawsuit for damages resulting from the Moonlight Fire, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced. At an estimated value of at least $122,500,000, the settlement is the largest recovery ever received by the United States for damages caused by a forest fire.
The Moonlight Fire ignited on September 3, 2007 on private forest land in Plumas County, Calif., and raged for more than two weeks, consuming about 65,000 acres of land. More than 46,000 of the acres burned were public lands in the Plumas and Lassen National Forests. A jury trial in the case before U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller had been scheduled to begin on July 9, 2012 in Sacramento.
The Moonlight Fire ignited on the 2007 Labor Day holiday as a result of logging operations by industry giant Sierra Pacific Industries and its contractor. Two employees operated bulldozers in a remote area on a red flag warning day — a condition of high fire danger declared by the National Weather Service. The employees — one of whom had started a fire with his bulldozer earlier that season — were unsupervised. The fire ignited when the track or blade of one of the bulldozers struck a rock and created sparks that ignited the surrounding dry ground fuels. The fire smoldered for a long period of time, but went undetected because the employees did not conduct their company-required fire patrol after shutdown. Instead, the designated fire watch left the work area and drove 30 minutes away to get a soda. When he returned over an hour later, there was a 100-foot wall of smoke billowing from the work area. The employee was without a means of calling the fire in and had no access to fire suppression equipment, which was situated about a mile away from the work area. Defendants deny liability for the fire.
In both size and scope, the fire was among the most devastating forest fires in California history. The fire burned primarily at high intensity, killing more than 15 million trees on public land, some of which were over 400 years old. Of the trees killed on public land, two million could have been harvested for commercial use, with enough timber to build more than 73,000 single-family homes. The fire also destroyed thousands of acres of critical habitat reserved for sensitive species, including the California spotted owl, the northern goshawk, and the American martin. Additionally, the fire threatened several communities, including the city of Susanville in Lassen County, Calif. More than 3,000 firefighters were assembled to contain the fire, and the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent more than $22.5 million fighting the fire.