Gov. Jerry Brown seeks to cap wildfire liabilities in California


SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown wants to limit the amount of money government agencies can recoup for battling wildfires and restoring damaged public lands.

The proposal would prevent agencies from seeking payouts several times larger than the value of the land — a goal of the powerful timber industry, which has fought the federal government’s efforts to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars after destructive wildfires in California.

Federal prosecutors in Sacramento are concerned that the proposal, if approved by the Legislature, would hurt their case against Sierra Pacific Industries, the state’s largest timber company. The government is suing the company for allegedly contributing to the 2007 Moonlight fire, which scorched 65,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen counties in Northern California.

A civil trial in that case is set to start July 2, and the company could be on the hook for about $600 million. That’s six times larger than the biggest settlement reached by the federal government in a wildfire case.

U.S. Atty. Benjamin Wagner called Brown’s proposal “a fairly cynical attempt by Sierra Pacific Industries to undermine the federal government’s position.”

“I hope that members of the Legislature see this measure for what it is: not a solid policy proposal but an attempt by one party to a lawsuit to tilt the playing field in its favor after three years of litigation in federal court,” Wagner said in a statement.

The California Forestry Assn., which represents private forest owners and timber producers, said the federal government is seeking five to six times more than the true cost of repairing the damage.

“These kinds of excessive damage claims are ultimately going to have a massive effect on private land owners, large and small, in California,” David Bischel, president of the association, said of the exposure private individuals face over fires that start on their property and spread.

Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Resources Agency, said the government could still get compensated for fighting fires and rehabilitating land. However, government agencies could no longer seek what the Brown administration called “excessive damages.”

“We’re not rolling back regulations or anything,” Stapler said.

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on criticism that it was seeking too much money in wildfire cases. The Consumer Attorneys of California, which opposes limits on legal liability, said it is negotiating with the Brown administration in hopes that any deal does not affect pending lawsuits.

Brown’s proposal covers some of the same ground as bills introduced by Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) and Assemblyman Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills). Hagman’s bill is supported by the insurance industry, which has given $225,000 to Brown’s proposed November ballot measure that would raise state taxes.

The timber industry has also reached into its pockets to support the governor. Sierra Pacific contributed $51,800 to his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, according to records from the secretary of state’s office.

The company has also donated $10,000 to support Brown’s proposed ballot measure to raise taxes temporarily to help close the state’s budget deficit. The California Forestry Assn. and Green Diamond Resource Company have pitched in an additional $15,000.

The governor’s office said there is no connection between the proposal and campaign contributions.

“This is pending legislation, and we’re in communication with the U.S. attorney about their concerns,” said Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for Brown.

Sierra Pacific did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2008, the federal government reached a $102-million settlement, the largest ever, with Union Pacific Railroad Co. for a 2000 wildfire that damaged 52,000 acres north of Sacramento. People and companies in national forests should “be on notice,” the U.S. attorney said at the time.

The following year, the federal government sued Sierra Pacific for the 2007 Moonlight fire. According to the lawsuit, the fire started when workers were operating bulldozers on company land. It was an “incident of the kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence,” the lawsuit said.