For about four hours on March 19, 2014, everything was burning as planned at Rat Camp Ranch in the Gabilan foothills near Chualar: Property owner Bill Massa, assisted by his son and others, was doing a prescribed burn, permitted by Cal Fire, on the ranch. The idea was to remove vegetation that would simply become kindling for a future wildfire if left to dry out in ongoing drought conditions.
But as dusk came, a gust of wind blew up, the fire ran up an oak tree, and the prescribed burn transformed into the two-day Encinal Fire. Cal Fire firefighters responded and stopped the blaze, but only after it had burned more than 400 acres.
A year and a half later, in September 2015, Cal Fire sent Massa a bill for $527,000 for its costs of fighting and investigating the fire. Massa rejected their bill, and on Dec. 16, 2016, Cal Fire sued Massa and his produce shipping business, Bill Massa Company, in Monterey County Superior Court.
“Cal Fire determined that defendants’ acts and omissions caused the Encinal Fire,” the lawsuit states, and goes on to claim Massa was negligent because a bulldozer was malfunctioning; he failed to create proper windbreaks; didn’t have enough personnel on hand; and started the fire too late in the day.
Massa did not respond to requests for comment.
Joe Rawitzer, who serves on the board of the Central Coast Prescribed Fire Council, knows Rat Camp Ranch well. Council members, or “burners,” hold an annual barbecue there to map out strategies for controlled burns. Rawitzer sees Cal Fire’s suit as having a chilling effect on other ranchland owners who are considering prescribed burns, one of their tools to prevent wildfires.
“In burning, things happen,” Rawitzer says. “There are times an act of God happens and it’s out of your control. Is that negligence? No.”
With Cal Fire and burners across the state, the council is developing prescribed burn standards – including liability protection.