Did lookout miss start of Moonlight Fire?
Were the rumors true?
Did Forest Service employee Caleb Lief get caught peeing on his feet and smoking pot while on duty at the Red Rock Lookout the day the Moonlight Fire started, Labor Day 2007?
According to fellow Forest Service employee Karen Juska, he was on deck, peeing on his feet when she arrived to pick up trash and a broken radio.
According to her deposition, his hand and his radio reeked of marijuana, which she’d previously seen in his belongings, as well as a pipe.
He denied her claims about the pot.
Sacramento Bee Legal Affairs Reporter Denny Walsh wrote at length about what he uncovered in depositions that were sealed in one case, yet made public anyway in the convoluted web of lawsuits and countersuits in both federal and state courts.
Back in January, the Bee lost its bid to keep the sworn statements from being sealed, yet they were already part of the public record in another case in the state Superior Court.
Rumors about Juska’s claims circulated among the Indian Valley community, even while the fire still raged and the evacuated residents of North Arm were blocked from returning to their homes.
Regardless of the potential scandal, the fire was miles away from the lookout, and several officials who supposedly reported the smoke at about the same time each gave a different description of the column of smoke. Even Juska’s and Lief’s descriptions did not match, and they spotted it together from the same location while just steps apart.
Unspecified logging operations were the cause of the fire, according to a brief report given to the media more than a month after the fire by Forest Service officials.
It took almost two years before the investigative report would be released to the public.
The official cause identified in the report was a rock strike from the front blade of a bulldozer driven by a Howell’s Forest Harvesting employee.
“It’s like what we heard in rumors,” said Engelmine Forest president Norman Lamb.
Howell’s is a Shingletown-based harvesting company owned by Eunice Howell, who refused to comment about the report.
What happened between the end of the Howell employees’ workday at about 1 p.m. and the sighting of smoke from the Red Rock Lookout at 2:24 p.m., less than two hours later, is a study in contradictions.
One of the operators said he did return to perform the required fire check within the two-hour limit.
A contracted aerial check was attempted at about the same time, about two or three minutes before smoke was reported from the lookout.
No one was supposed to be working that day, or so the pilot thought. He was just checking due to recreational use and the elevated fire danger.
Meanwhile, Juska and Lief were carrying trash down to her truck when the smoke was spotted, according to investigating officer Diane Welton’s published report.
The peeing and the pot smoking were not included, and some commentators on the Bee article think they are irrelevant to the case.
Regardless, Juska said she saw the smoke first, a light wisp, and Lief said he saw it first and it was more like a concise, thick column.
Neither description matched the thin, black and straight column seen from the Westwood Cal-Fire Station by firefighter Danny Ray Rackley II.
Although reports differed about who saw what first, who was on scene first, what color and shape the smoke was and how big the fire was, the conclusion made that day by Forest Service investigator Dave Reynolds stood the test of time, multiple interviews and evidence gathering — dozer blade versus rock.
CalFire, seeks $8,441,309.99 plus interest in Plumas County Superior Court for fire suppression, investigation, administration and accounting costs from the Moonlight Fire Sept. 3. 2007.
The fire originated in the Cooks Creek Timber Sale.
Ownership of the properties was not known fully at the time, and discovery has identified several landowners, with trustees listed as Brooks Walker Jr., Brooks Walker III, Leslie Walker, Richard Greene, John C. Walker, Kirby Walker, Jennifer Walker, Lindsey Walker-Silverman, Wellington S. Henderson, Jr., Charles C. Henderson, Joan H. Henderson, Elena D. Henderson and Mark W. Henderson.
The property manager named in the suit is W.M. Beaty and Associates of Redding, which was responsible for submitting the timber harvest plan and was the timber seller.
The purchaser named in the suit is Sierra Pacific Industries of Anderson.
The timber operator listed is Eunice Howell, owner of Howell's Forest Harvesting of Shasta County.
Howell employees were also named in the suit, including Kelly Crimson and J.W. Bush of Shasta County.
CalFire alleges that Crimson was operating the equipment and Bush failed to perform a diligent ground inspection within the first two hours after work stopped and failed to have adequate communication equipment to report any fire detected, which are both required by law and the harvest plan.
CalFire considers all of the parties to have been in a joint venture, which obligated them and made them liable.
In the federal court, U.S. Attorney Lawrence G. Brown and Assistant Attorney Robert Wright are seeking double damages with interest and penalties in amounts to be proven during the trial, though the Bee reports that the total of all related suits in state and federal courts could reach to more than $1 billion.
Besides suppression, investigation, collection and administration costs, the feds also seek payment for loss of timber, habitat and environmental value as well as costs for rehabilitation and restoration.
Jury trials are set to begin for both state and federal cases in April.