Why dozens of people are likely to sue Caltrans and Redding over the deadly Carr Fire

Granddaughter of Carr fire victims finds out her relatives have died

Carla Bledsoe, granddaughter of Melody Bledsoe and aunt of James and Emily Roberts, describes trying to reach her relatives as the Carr fire approached their home.
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Carla Bledsoe, granddaughter of Melody Bledsoe and aunt of James and Emily Roberts, describes trying to reach her relatives as the Carr fire approached their home.

Setting the stage for lawsuits, more than 250 people who lost homes and property to last summer’s deadly Carr Fire in Redding have filed damage claims with the city and with the state’s highway department alleging the fire grew out of control because neither agency did enough to trim vegetation.

One set of claims filed by at least 175 people alleges the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, failed to trim vegetation in its right-of-way near the fire’s origin point on Highway 299 west of Redding.

State fire investigators said a vehicle with a flat tire caused a spark July 23 that ignited vegetation at the intersection of Highway 299 and Carr Powerhouse Road.

A Caltrans spokeswoman declined to comment on Monday.

In the days that followed, the fire exploded in the intense, dry temperatures and heavy winds, destroying small communities west of Redding before tearing into the city.

By the time it was contained a month later, the Carr Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes. Eight people died, including two children and three firefighters.

A second, separate set of claims filed by 91 people allege the city of Redding failed to act on a 5-year old “Hazard Mitigation Plan” that called for “defensible space” firebreaks to protect the western edge of the city from fire.

“Nothing has been done,” said Dugan Barr, a Redding attorney whose firm is representing the potential plaintiffs. “(The plan) has been holding down a shelf in city hall. That’s all it’s done.”

City attorney Barry DeWalt didn’t return a request for comment Monday.

The Sacramento Bee reported in September that much of the western part of Redding was identified in the hazard mitigation plan as a very high wildfire hazard area. A map on the city’s website showed the neighborhoods devastated by the Carr Fire were in that high risk zone.

“Given the topography, climate and vegetation on the west side of Redding, it is ripe and conducive to having fast-spreading wildfires,” city officials wrote in a 2015 local hazard mitigation plan.

The local hazard plan also cautioned against building new homes in parts of the city facing the highest risk.

“The risks associated with future events will continue to increase as the City sees development on previously approved projects in the very high fire hazard severity zone and as new developments are proposed and constructed,” the report stated.

The last of the claims were filed last week on the six-month anniversary of the fire. In order to sue a government agency in California, a plaintiff generally has to file a damage claim within six months.

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Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.