Los Angeles, California - A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks nearly $25 million in damages from the owner of a Mountain Center residence and the property’s caretakers for alleged negligence that led to the 2013 Mountain Fire, which burned for more than two weeks and scorched over 27,500 acres, more than half of which was in the San Bernardino National Forest.
The civil complaint alleges negligence and violations of California law as being the cause of the fire that started on July 15, 2013, and burned a large swath of the San Jacinto Mountains, for a time threatening the town of Idyllwild and forcing over 5,000 residents to evacuate. An investigation determined that the fire started when an electrical discharge inside of an improperly maintained electrical junction box “shot sparks and hot material out of the box and onto dry ground vegetation below,” according to the lawsuit.
The Mountain Fire started on property known as Gibraltar West that is owned by Tarek M. Al-Shawaf, who is the lead defendant in the lawsuit. The complaint also names as defendants James D. Nowlin and Donna L. Nowlin, who were the caretakers employed by Al-Shawaf.
The defendants had a duty “to properly inspect and maintain their electrical equipment, electrical wires, and electrical junction boxes to ensure that they were safe, properly secured, and clear from dangerous conditions,” the complaint alleges.
“Property owners and their agents have a responsibility to ensure that property under their control is maintained in a safe fashion,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “In addition to endangering countless lives, including those of firefighters who battle these large-scale blazes, the failure to properly manage the property and the electrical equipment on the property in this case cost taxpayers approximately $24 million dollars.”
The United States Forest Service expended considerable resources to suppress the Mountain Fire, including deploying more than 3,000 firefighters, 250 fire engines, 20 helicopters and 10 airplanes. The complaint specifically alleges that the Forest Service spent more than $15 million to fight the fire, that the fire caused more than $9 million in damages to natural resources, and that more than $300,000 had to be spent to perform emergency rehabilitation. “The damages to the United States include, but are not limited to: mitigation, rehabilitation, and reforestation of burned areas; loss of and damage to timber, habitat, wildlife, watershed, earth, scenery, and environment; aesthetic values; loss of use and recreation; soil damage; and erosion,” according to the lawsuit.
The federal lawsuit comes after the Forest Service made demands that Al-Shawaf and the Nowlins pay for the costs and damages associated with the fire. The defendants have not paid any of the money demanded by the government.
While the lawsuit alleges that the Forest Services suffered losses of nearly $25 million, the defendants could also be ordered to pay intangible environmental damages for harm caused to the San Bernardino National Forest, as well as interest and penalties.
This matter was investigated by the United States Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.
This case is being handled by Assistant United States Attorney Garrett Coyle of the Civil Division.