In July 2017, nine wildfires blazed throughout California and the Garza Fire, which sparked about 3pm that July 9, grew to be the largest of them all. It started on a remote ranch owned by the Van Boxtel family, a ranch that includes land in Monterey and Kings County, and spread to Fresno County. By the time it was fully contained, Garza had burned through 48,889 acres and required about 625 personnel, from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Conservation Corps, the Office of Emergency Services and other agencies, to knock down.
Cal Fire estimates it cost more than $15 million to fight the Garza Fire, and now, more than two years after the fire started and ended, they’d like to get paid.
And to get paid, they’re coming after the Monterey-based Ventana Wildlife Society, a vastly important nonprofit that organized to prevent extinction of wild animals, released 66 bald eagles in Central California in the ’80s and ’90s and began reintroducing California condors in 1997. They’re best known for the condors, and have led the efforts to get hunters to use non-lead ammunition, stopping the deadly cycle of lead poisoning in condors. VWS also monitors accessible condor nests to document hatching and chick growth – by their numbers, in 2018 there were 98 wild condors in Central California, and four wild chicks.
In a lawsuit filed June 19 on its behalf by the state Attorney General’s Office, Cal Fire claims that a Ventana Wildlife Society employee named Bryce Van Boxtel (note the family connection – it was apparently his grandfather’s property where the fire started) acted negligently in driving a VWS-owned vehicle onto a dirt road at the ranch.
The vehicle sparked a fire in dry grass next to the road, on a 102-degree and fairly windy day. While the lawsuit states Van Boxtel and his passengers tried to put the fire out, the flames spread and grew.
Here’s where things get muddy. According to the suit, Van Boxtel was operating a VWS-owned vehicle and acting as a VWS employee when the fire started. But VWS Executive Director Kelly Sorenson isn’t sure Van Boxtel was in a work vehicle at the time, and if he was, Sorenson says, he was acting outside the scope of his official duties by transporting workers to a job site to work on fencing, unrelated to his work at VWS.
Last Jan. 10, Cal Fire sent Van Boxtel a “letter of demand” for $15,515,516.74 (you gotta love the precision of that 74 cents tacked on to that monumental sum) for the cost of fighting the fire, ending the fire, investigating the fire and – bonus – administering a fire suppression cost recovery program. They sent a similar demand to VWS on June 3, followed by the lawsuit.
Sorenson writes by email that VWS regularly works collaboratively with government and non-government agencies, as well as private landowners. Van Boxtel’s grandfather fell into that latter category.
“VWS and the ranch had an agreement to support condor recovery, but this agreement had nothing to do with the fence they were building. If the driver was using the VWS vehicle, as he claims, he was doing so without authorization,” Sorenson writes. “Because we did not authorize our vehicle for his personal ranch activities, VWS should not be named in the complaint.”
Cal Fire has become more aggressive in recent years when it comes to recovering costs of fighting wildfires. They sued local businessman Bill Massa when a prescribed burn on his Rat Camp Ranch near Chualar, whipped by winds, grew to 600 acres and took two days to extinguish. Cal Fire sent Massa a bill for $527,003.30 and when he refused to pay, they sued. A jury eventually awarded Cal Fire $250,000.
It’s a trend people should expect to continue, says Curt Varone, a 40-year fire service veteran and attorney who teaches and writes the Fire Law Blog.
“In some places if you start a fire, there are going to be consequences, sometimes criminal ones,” he says. “There’s a benefit to society when people who cause fires are held accountable.”
In this case, the people who Cal Fire claim are responsible are due to appear in court on Oct. 22 for a case management hearing.
Bryce Van Boxtel could not be located for comment.