On a hot, windy, low-humidity afternoon in 2007, while one of the worst wildfires in California history was gathering momentum, a U.S. Forest Service employee allegedly possessed and perhaps used marijuana while alone on duty at the lookout tower closest to where the fire started.
Documents the U.S. government hoped would never see the light of day and other papers reviewed by The Bee reveal a ranger's accusations and Forest Service managers' concerns that they could cause a legal nightmare.
The documents did, indeed, find their way into a labyrinth of lawsuits, cross claims and counter claims that rose from the ashes of the Moonlight fire.
Around 2 p.m. on Sept. 3, 2007 Labor Day Caleb Lief was busy urinating on his bare feet while standing on the catwalk encircling the cabin of the Red Rock lookout tower in Plumas County.
At the same time, Ranger Karen Juska climbed the tower's steps and came face to face with Lief, leaving them both flustered and embarrassed.
"Don't think I'm weird or gross," Lief stammered, according to Juska's report. "It's an old hotshot trick for curing athlete's foot." (Lief was once a member of a hotshot crew, elite wildland firefighters.)
In the tower's cabin, when Juska spotted a small, glass pipe, "Caleb grabbed it, said, 'My bad. You weren't supposed to see that,' " the ranger recounted in sworn testimony last year.
When Lief handed her a mobile radio she had come to pick up for repair, "his hand and the radio had a heavy odor of marijuana," says Juska's report.
Lief denies using or possessing marijuana that day.
A few minutes later, they carried trash down to Juska's truck and, as her eyes swept the horizon, she saw smoke rising from Moonlight Valley. "You have smoke right there," she testified she told Lief. He turned and exclaimed, "Oh shit!"
Juska jumped in her truck, alerted a Forest Service dispatcher, and headed for the smoke.
Lief dashed up the stairs of Red Rock tower, which had a direct line of sight to the fire 10 miles away.
Burned for two weeks
The Moonlight fire ignited on a 520-acre piece of private property, converting 65,000 acres of what was lush forest including 46,000 acres of national forest in Plumas and Lassen counties into a moonscape for a century.
Burning furiously for two weeks, it killed 15 million trees, some more than 400 years old.
By the third day, federal and state investigators were satisfied they had determined the place of origin and the cause: A bulldozer belonging to a logging company harvesting timber for Sierra Pacific hit a rock, generating a spark that flew into dry duff.
According to court records, in the wake of the fire:
Diane Welton, a special agent with the Forest Service's law enforcement unit and co-author of the report on the fire, took statements from Juska and Lief that do not include the allegations about marijuana. She reported those orally to her supervisor, Craig Endicott, who assured her he would follow up.
The matter was never investigated by the Forest Service, and Lief was not questioned about it until his January 2011 sworn testimony in connection with a civil damage suit in Sacramento federal court over the cause of the fire.
Lief was terminated following Juska's claims in 2009 that he verbally attacked her at Red Rock and threatened to hit her with a screen door he was carrying to her truck.
The final report on the Moonlight fire, released in 2009, included no mention of suspected marijuana use by the Red Rock lookout the day the fire started.
Soon after the report's release, the United States filed its suit seeking nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars as compensation for loss of timber, habitat, wildlife, watershed and earth protection, and scenic and environmental values.
In addition, it asks that the defendants pay firefighting expenses, as well as costs associated with the rehabilitation and restoration of the Plumas and Lassen national forests.
Six other suits against essentially the same defendants one brought by the state and five by private plaintiffs are wending through Plumas Superior Court.
Together, the seven suits ask for more than a billion dollars in compensatory and other damages.
In two lengthy phone interviews, Lief told The Bee none of Juska's accusations linking him to marijuana is true. He said he had a rocky relationship with her and, to a lesser extent, the ranger who was supervising both of them, and they set about to get rid of him.
He said Juska lied about the incident that led to his firing, which was upheld. "They believed her story over mine," he said ruefully.
Court documents reveal that Juska's report on her Sept. 3, 2007, visit to the Red Rock tower was not the first time she reported seeing marijuana in the cabin while Lief was on duty.
During a visit on June 30, 2007, she said she saw what she believed to be marijuana in a baggie, along with a pipe, in a backpack on the floor of the cabin while Lief was briefly absent.
She also reported that, in conversations with Lief at other times, he said that he "would much rather smoke pot; he really doesn't handle alcohol too well."
"I told Caleb that I did not care what he did with his time off and that the lookout is a government building. Nothing illegal can take place there."
Acting District Ranger Dave Loomis testified it was "speculation" that Lief was using marijuana in the tower. He said he reported Juska's allegations to Alice Carlton, Plumas National Forest supervisor.
Carlton, now supervisor of the Umpqua National Forest in Oregon, testified: "I asked for what law enforcement thought about the allegations. Their answer was there is not enough here, you can't pursue it, and that was that. I took it at face value. They are experts, as far as I know, and that was the information I needed and I moved on."
Maria Garcia, who was Carlton's deputy and is now supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, testified she was told by Carlton that the law enforcement unit took the position there was little it could do since Lief had removed his personal property from the tower.
Nevertheless, Garcia said, there should have been an investigation.
Lee Anne Taylor, a Forest Service spokeswoman at the Plumas National Forest, said there will be no comment from the agency at any level before The Bee's publication of a story.
Lief is resolute. "I did my job," he declared in reference to the day the Moonlight fire started. "The logging company that Sierra Pacific hired to harvest timber was supposed to have a fire lookout posted. Did he do his job? Apparently not."