SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A California man who lost his home in a wildfire last month has sued a wood products company at the center of the blaze, accusing it of failing to address the risk of a fire starting on its property.
The fire started near the Roseburg Forest Products Co. mill on Sept. 2 in the small town of Weed near the California-Oregon border. It eventually burned more than six square miles (15.5 square kilometers), destroyed 118 buildings and killed two people. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is still investigating the cause of the fire.
The mill produces its own electricity from wood remnants, a process that produces hot ash that is then sprayed with water from a machine. The company says it is investigating whether that machine, which it says is supplied by a third-party, failed to cool the ash enough, which could have started the fire.
Tuesday, lawyers for 61-year-old Robert Davies sued the company, saying it did not make sure the machine was adequately designed, inspected and maintained — making the shed where the ashes were stored “a tinderbox awaiting a spark.”
Instead of fixing the machine, the lawsuit says the company relied on its employees to put out fires, resulting in “a number of unreported fires at the facility.”
“It begs the question, what was done from a safety standpoint to be able to address these fires that had occurred by using the correct technology and systems that would not rely solely on humans to be able to intervene,” Frank Pitre, one of Davies’ lawyers, said during a press conference on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the company declined to comment.
The company has set aside $50 million to support victims of the fire, and so far it has compensated more than 300 people. That included Davies, who received $5,000. The lawsuit says this wasn’t enough to compensate him for the loss of his home of over 30 years and everything inside it.
Pitre said he doesn’t believe the fire was a freak accident, saying multiple fires occurred on the site leading up to the blaze, known as the Mill Fire, which began on Sept. 2. He added the area was notorious for high winds during certain parts of the year.
Terry Anderlini, another lawyer representing Davies, said Wednesday that the fire should never have happened.
“We’re here to bring this forward and get to the truth of the matter,” Anderlini said.
Warmer temperatures and drier conditions as a result of climate change have sped up the cadence of wildfires in Western states, scientists say. Wildfires have devastated communities in California, which, in the last five years, has seen the largest and most destructive fires in history.
The Mill Fire started less than a quarter mile (0.3 kilometers) from the Weed City Fire Department and burned for 11 days. It prompted Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency in Siskiyou County and resulted in federal grant money to fight the blaze and support residents.
Davies, who previously worked for an engineering company that contracted with the U.S. military, said he was in his home with his 25-year-old son when the fire started. After hearing helicopters flying from above, Davies walked outside and saw smoke coming over a hill. Within less than an hour, the smoke reached his house, he said.
Davies and his son left their home with laundry baskets and clothes. Among the items left behind in Davies’ house were Disney collectibles he planned to will to his 36-year-old daughter.
Davies said his family moved to the house in the mountains at least in part to avoid crime in larger cities.
“In a way, it was kind of like a fairytale,” Davies said. “We never had to worry. And that’s all been stripped from, not only myself, but my children.”
Sophie Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Sophie Austin on Twitter.