Soapbox

Cal Fire needs to come clean on Moonlight fire investigation

A canopy of burned pine trees in 2008 was a reminder of the damage caused by the Moonlight fire the year before in Plumas County.
A canopy of burned pine trees in 2008 was a reminder of the damage caused by the Moonlight fire the year before in Plumas County. Sacramento Bee file

Carefully and truthfully finding the origin and cause of fires plays a key role in fire prevention and the protection of lives and property in California. Between the two of us, we proudly served Californians for more than six decades at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. We were proud of Cal Fire. Today, in retirement, we are embarrassed and angry. The causes are manifold.

The Moonlight fire started on Labor Day 2007 in the northern Sierra Nevada. It ended two weeks later, but not before incinerating 65,000 acres – 45,000 in our national forests. Cal Fire alleged that the fire started through negligence and violations of law. Cal Fire sued several parties to recover the cost of suppressing and investigating the fire. In its efforts to recover $8 million in fire-suppression costs, Cal Fire has spent at least $10 million in legal fees, experts and costs pursuing its case.

After seven years of litigation, California Superior Court Judge Leslie C. Nichols dismissed the case and ruled against Cal Fire. The judge awarded $32 million in attorney’s fees and expenses to the defendants, but his description of the investigation and prosecution is what troubles us most.

Judge Nichols called Cal Fire’s Moonlight fire investigation “corrupt and tainted” and found “egregious,” “reprehensible” and “governmental corruption” on the part of state investigators and prosecutors.

According to Judge Nichols’ decision, Cal Fire investigators ignored their initial finding on the origin of the fire, manufactured evidence and obstructed justice. They failed to follow up on individuals who might have started the blaze and falsified interview statements of individuals they wanted to blame. Through discovery and depositions, defense attorneys learned that Cal Fire investigators hid key photographs and then lied about what they revealed.

“The misconduct in this case is so pervasive,” Judge Nichols wrote, “that it would serve no purpose for the court to attempt to recite it all here.”

The Moonlight fire investigators were not worried about evidence and justice – they were “all in” to pin the blame on the defendants, the judge said.

This year we joined other Cal Fire retirees in filing formal complaints with Cal Fire, the California attorney general and the governor’s administration, against those employees involved in this incompetent and corrupt investigation. We believe they compromised Cal Fire’s reputation and ability to promote a culture of accountability and integrity. They have also besmirched the professional reputation of honest, hard-working Cal Fire law enforcement officers, current and retired.

Of course, Cal Fire officials were but a part of a joint federal-state effort. Lawyers in the office of the California attorney general and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California are also culpable for the “corrupt and tainted” Moonlight fire action.

Unfortunately, Sierra Pacific Industries and other defendants entered into a massive settlement in the federal case before fully understanding the extent of the corruption that Judge Nichols discovered. In light of these discoveries, the defendants have now petitioned U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb to restore the integrity of our judicial system and set aside the perpetrators’ ill-gotten settlement.

Our complaints and other efforts to salvage justice from the Moonlight fire ruins are important. Public trust in our justice system can only be restored when Cal Fire, the California attorney general and the U.S. attorney general address Judge Nichols’ findings with actions commensurate with the damage they have created.

Tom Hoffman, of Orangevale, is the retired chief of fire prevention and law enforcement at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Mike Cole, of San Luis Obispo, is a retired battalion chief and investigator for Cal Fire.

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