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California

Prosecutors seek $25 million from Saudi businessman over 2013 wildfire in Riverside County

Homeowner sued over Mountain fire
The Mountain fire began July 15, 2013, and burned through more than 27,500 acres. A property owner was sued Thursday for alleged negligence that led to the blaze.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The federal government sued a Riverside County homeowner, alleging that his negligent maintenance led to a 27,500-acre wildfire in 2013 that destroyed more than 20 buildings and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles contend that an electrical box on Tarek M. Al-Shawaf’s 20-acre property shot sparks, igniting what was dubbed the Mountain fire.

But an attorney representing Al-Shawaf has disputed the government’s claims and said his client was not responsible for starting the inferno.

The blaze broke out on July 15, 2013, near Idyllwild and charred through a large swath of rugged mountains southwest of Palm Springs. More than 3,000 firefighters battled the flames, which forced more than 5,000 residents to evacuate.

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Charred landscape along Apple Canyon Road in Mountain Center
Charred landscape along Apple Canyon Road in Mountain Center
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

The suit names Al-Shawaf and two caretakers, James and Donna Nowlin, whom he hired to maintain the property. Al-Shawaf is the founder and president of Saudconsult, one of the oldest engineering and architectural firms in Saudi Arabia, the Desert Sun reported.

According to the complaint, a plastic electrical box on Al-Shawaf’s property stored wires but its lid was not properly secured. When the box had an electrical discharge, it sent sparks onto dry vegetation, the suit states.

Once the fire began, it took about 16 days for it to be contained.

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Al-Shawaf, as the owner of the estate known as Gibraltar West, and his caretakers had a duty “to properly inspect and maintain their electrical equipment … to ensure that they were safe, properly secured and clear from dangerous conditions,” according to the lawsuit.

U.S. Atty. Eileen M. Decker faulted the homeowner and caretakers for endangering the lives of residents and the scores of firefighters who were deployed to the blaze.

“Property owners and their agents have a responsibility to ensure that property under their control is maintained in a safe fashion,” Decker said in a statement.

A burned structure at a church camp on top of Apple Canyon Road in Mountain Center.
A burned structure at a church camp on top of Apple Canyon Road in Mountain Center.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

But James R. Lance, an attorney representing Al-Shawaf and the two caretakers, disputed that his clients played a role in starting the fire. He noted that the lawsuit filed Thursday was nearly identical to lawsuits filed last year in Riverside Superior Court by homeowners and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“Our investigation indicates the fire did not start as alleged in the lawsuit filed today by the federal government,” Lance said in an email.

“Our clients are not responsible for starting the fire or the damages caused by the fire.”

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The federal lawsuit was filed in the Central District of California on the eve of the third anniversary of the fire and seeks nearly $25 million from Al-Shawaf and the caretakers.

The firefight cost the U.S. Forest Service more than $15 million, and the flames caused about $9 million in damage to the environment. The “emergency rehabilitation” cost an additional $300,000, according to court papers.

The suit was filed after Al-Shawaf and the caretakers failed to cover the costs demanded by the Forest Service, prosecutors wrote.

For more news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

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