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UP pays $17.3 million in damages for Rich Fire

Delaine Fragnoli
Managing Editor

Union Pacific Railroad Co. has agreed to pay more than $17 million for damages and suppression costs related to the 2008 Rich Fire on the Plumas National Forest.

The payment, announced by government officials, settled a federal claim after a Forest Service investigation concluded a crew of railroad workers negligently ignited the fire by cutting and welding rail without using tent shields.

The fire, which started July 29, 2008, in the Feather River Canyon, burned 6,500 acres, destroyed four structures, led to evacuations and temporarily closed Highway 70, the rail line and the Pacific Crest Trail.

The settlement amount includes the $10 million it cost to suppress the fire and another $7 million for destroyed timber, reforestation costs and other environmental and resource damages.

Union Pacific agreed to pay the bill in full in exchange for a release from damages claims.

The settlement comes two years after a record-setting agreement on the August 2000 Storrie Fire, which scorched 52,000 acres on the Plumas and Lassen national forests. That fire was also sparked by a UP crew repairing track.

In 2004, the Forest Service billed UP $63.9 million for damages. The company refused to pay that bill, and the United States filed suit. After two years of litigation, Union Pacific settled that case for $102 million.

It remains the largest settlement ever in a case about the origin of a wildfire.

It also set precedent by including not only suppression costs, but also damages to natural resources.

Settlement funds representing resource losses from fire are dedicated by federal statute to support restoration projects on the damaged national forests. A substantial portion of the Rich Fire settlement funds will go to the Forest Service to help remedy damages caused by the fire.

A fire restoration team on the Plumas National Forest will spend approximately the next year assessing needs and developing a plan said forest spokeswoman Lee Anne Schramel.

She noted the rugged nature of the fire area. "It's semi-primitive, non-motorized," she said, "so efforts will likely concentrate on slope stabilization, erosion control and watershed work."

"The Rich Fire settlement reflects the significant value we place on our treasured public forests," said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner.

"Union Pacific's agreement to pay for the damages caused by this fire, without litigation, benefits both the railroad and the public. Restoration projects funded by the settlement will have a direct environmental benefit in our district, by helping to heal the beautiful Feather River Canyon. Fire investigations and recoveries will remain a high priority for our office."

"A significant portion of this money will be used by the Forest Service to help restore the fire-damaged area," said Regional Forester Randy Moore. "We are pleased by the quick settlement."

At the time of the Storrie settlement, Moore noted power companies are the most common defendants in fire-origin cases, although tree trimming companies and negligent members of the public have also been found responsible in multiple cases.

The Eastern District of California has special Fire Recovery Litigation teams that focus solely on these types of cases.

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