El Dorado supervisor waiting to see if he’ll have to pay for fire response

Published: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 8, 2014 - 9:35 am

El Dorado County Supervisor Ray Nutting, already facing charges for allegedly failing to declare state income for brush clearing on his ranch, is now waiting to find out if he will be billed for a November incident in which fires broke out from smoldering burn piles that reignited.

The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says four small fires broke out Nov. 22 on Nutting’s 340-acre timber ranch in Somerset. Cal Fire investigators recently completed their report on the department’s response to the Nutting property.

Since 2001, state crews have responded five times to fires on Nutting’s ranch resulting from burn piles as part of work to clear vegetation and other fire hazards.

The Cal Fire report said crews were initially alerted in November to two fires reportedly in excess of 15 acres. Five engine units, which were on the scene for four hours, responded to what turned out to be fires contained to about 5 acres on Nutting’s property.

In the incident report, obtained by The Bee this week, Cal Fire officials said Nutting was “actively suppressing the fires with hand tools” when crews – alerted by a neighbor – reached his ranch as winds were gusting up to 25 miles per hour.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the agency is reviewing the incident to determine if Nutting should be held liable for fire response costs and, if so, how much he should pay.

Nutting recently told The Sacramento Bee that he burned debris on his ranch in November “in the middle of a rainstorm,” consolidating several piles of debris “until they all burned out and there was no smoke and no heat.” Two days later, Nutting said, “a couple of spot fires” resulted after debris piles reignited as the winds picked up. Nutting, who told fire investigators he worked with his son and a ranch hand to put water on the fires and contain their spread, said he let state fire crews take over when they arrived.

While Cal Fire reported that the fires resulted from burn piles of brush and tree branches that spread to surrounding vegetation, Berlant said officials haven’t decided if Nutting should be held financially responsible.

“There are a number of different circumstances we’ve got to determine that there was negligence,” Berlant said. “Did he take all the steps ahead of time to avoid it? And did he take the right actions himself once the winds picked up?”

Last year, Nutting was billed $10,660.22 for state fire suppression costs in connection with a Jan. 21, 2013, blaze that erupted from unattended burn piles as the supervisor was performing work on his ranch under a state brush-clearing contract due to pay him $49,348. Nutting participates in a state program that pays rural landowners to reduce fire danger by removing debris.

He faces trial in April after being indicted in El Dorado County on four felony counts stemming from his alleged failure to properly disclose income he received from the state contracts he received for brush-clearing and other fire safety improvements on his ranch. District Attorney Vern Pierson and state Attorney General Kamala Harris later added seven misdemeanor counts, charging that Nutting illegally solicited money from local business owners and two county employees to bail himself out of jail.

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

Read more articles by Peter Hecht

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