The United States has just filed suit against a power company and the subcontractor that it hired to trim hazard trees that encroached the company’s power lines. The government alleges that the defendants, negligently and in violation of law, ignited the Power Fire in 2004 by carelessly discarding an ignited cigarette while operating on the Eldorado National Forest. In the case the government seeks twice the amount of all damages sustained, i.e., twice the costs of fire suppression, rehabilitation and restoration of the burned areas, loss of commercial timber, loss of environmental resources and uses, and loss of cultural resources. The government also seeks interest, the cost of investigation, collection, accounting, and administrative costs incurred as a result of the fire and attorneys’ fees. Although unspecified, the total will be huge.
The Power Fire burned approximately 16,993 acres on the Eldorado National Forest and on private timberlands. Interestingly, in its complaint the government asserts, among other things, that it is entitled to a presumption and inference of negligence because the ignition and spread of the Power Fire was not the type of accident that normally occurs absent negligence, and defendants had exclusive control of the cigarettes that started the fire, as well as their work area and all other reasonably probable instrumentalities capable of starting the fire.