The dispute that turned into a legal free-for-all over who started one of the most destructive wildfires in California history was settled Thursday.
The United States' lawsuit against Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest single landholder in North America, and others was scheduled to go to trial last Monday before U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory G. Hollows agreed to make a last-ditch effort to resolve the case, and the trial was delayed for one week.
The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
The government has been seeking approximately $700 million for alleged damage to 46,000 acres of national forest in Plumas and Lassen counties caused by the Moonlight fire in 2007. It is the government's contention that the fire was started by a spark that jumped into dry undergrowth when a bulldozer working a timber project hit a rock.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner would not discuss the settlement's terms. He said he will have something to say when the agreement has been signed by all parties. The target date for that is Wednesday, according to minutes of Thursday's negotiations.
The settlement was reached in midafternoon Thursday, but the minutes were posted on the docket near the end of the business day. They say: "CASE SETTLED IN ITS ENTIRETY. Written settlement agreement to be completed by tomorrow 7/6/2012, and signed by all parties by Wednesday, 7/11/2012."
Settlement conferences are typically closed.
Sitting down with Hollows on June 27 were attorneys for the government, for Sierra Pacific, for the owners of private Plumas County land where the fire started, for the owners' property management firm that retained Sierra Pacific on the timber project, and for a logging company hired by Sierra Pacific to perform the harvest. Also present were company officers from Sierra Pacific.
Negotiators gathered again before Hollows on Monday. In addition to the lawyers, principals of Sierra Pacific were again present, plus an insurance representative for the logging company, the company's owner, and four of the property owners.
In attendance at Thursday's resumption of negotiations were the lawyers, the owner of the property management firm, and former U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott. It is unclear what Scott's role was. He is a partner in the Sacramento office of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a firm that has never before appeared on the public record of the suit.
Notably, Sierra Pacific officers were not present and only one of its attorneys was there, indicating its part of the settlement may have been largely decided before Thursday. Four of its attorneys were there Monday.