After what became known as the Moonlight Fire burned some 65,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada in 2007, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection decided that Sierra Pacific Industries was responsible for the damage. The culprit, regulators charged, was a friction spark from a bulldozer operating on Sierra Pacific land. Cal Fire fined the timber company $8 million to pay for related costs. Because the fire burned more than 40,000 acres of national forest, the federal government also went after Sierra Pacific’s deep pockets; in 2012, Sierra Pacific agreed to a settlement that entailed paying the feds $47 million and giving Uncle Sam 22,500 acres of forestland.
That’s how the system should work, you probably are thinking, and I would think that, too — except that Superior Court Judge Leslie C. Nichols tossed the state’s case, citing a lack of solid evidence. Last year, he ruled that the government’s case was “corrupt and tainted. Cal Fire failed to comply with discovery obligations, and its repeated failure was willful.” The judge charged that the state destroyed evidence and “engaged in a systematic campaign of misdirection with the purpose of recovering money from Defendants.” Call it robbery by fiat. If the judge is right, government watchdogs didn’t care who the guilty party actually was, as long as they could cash in.
Photo credit: "Moonlight fire usfs" by US Forest Service