Under Fire

A memorial was built off Palo Colorado Road to honor Robert Reagan, a 35-year-old bulldozer driver who died while fighting the Soberanes Fire.

Robert Oliver Reagan III was just minutes into his shift on July 26, 2016, maneuvering a bulldozer around a steep slope in Palo Colorado Canyon as one of dozens of outside contractors who came to the area to help fight the Soberanes Fire, when the dozer rolled over, ejecting him from his seat and crushing him to death.

From the time it was reported on July 22, 2016, to the time the state declared it contained three months later on Oct. 28, the fire, which started as a result of an unattended illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park, consumed 132,127 acres, destroyed 57 homes and led to Reagan’s death. At the time, it was the most expensive fire to fight in U.S. history, exceeding $200 million in costs.

Now, almost three years after it sparked, the general contractor who held a lucrative contract with Cal Fire to do seasonal bulldozer work and who hired Reagan to help on the Soberanes job has gone to trial on charges he failed to secure workers’ compensation insurance, committed tax evasion and failed to pay taxes.

At the heart of the issue is whether Ian Czirban paid Reagan as an employee, or whether Reagan operated as an independent contractor – and if he was an employee, why he didn’t have workers’ comp insurance. Czirban, of Czirban Concrete Construction in Madera County, maintains he made it clear to Reagan that Reagan was operating as an independent contractor for an agreed-upon rate of $625 a day. In briefs prepared for the trial, though, Monterey County Deputy District Attorney John Hubanks writes that Czirban – whose license has since been revoked by the Contractors State License Board – represented to Cal Fire that he was an employer and had workers’ compensation insurance when he signed his contract with them. According to testimony from CSLB enforcement representative Melissa Huckaby, Czirban indicated he had two employees when in 2014 he filed for classification as a small business entity with the state Department of General Services.

Defense attorney Daniel Olmos noted, though, that when Czirban filed for that classification, the form asked him how many employees he had, on average, for the previous four quarters and not at the time he was filling out the form.

Prosecution witness Gregory Harper, an underwriting manager with the State Compensation Insurance Fund, testified that a policy issued to Czirban Concrete was made effective in 2014, but quickly rescinded because the check bounced. A recision notice was sent on Feb. 7, 2014, effective back to Jan. 14 of that year.

Reagan, 35, left behind a wife and two young daughters. A GoFundMe campaign launched shortly after his death raised just over $137,000. Because of the dispute over whether he was an employee or a contractor, the state unemployment benefit fund may become a payor of last resort for further support of Reagan’s family.

On May 30, the second day of Czirban’s trial, prosecutors dropped a felony count alleging Czirban committed insurance fraud. Monterey County Superior Court Judge Andrew Liu told the prosecution and defense to return to court on Aug. 21 for closing arguments. He told them he will then take the case under submission and will render a verdict at a later date.

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