The California Department of Occupational Safety and Health said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and the Calaveras County Public Works department failed to institute certain safety procedures at a Mountain Ranch tree debris work site in March which resulted in the death of county employee.
Frank Polizzi with Cal/OSHA said the agencies were issued a total of $72,000 in citations on Sept. 18 following a six-month investigation into the Doster Road and West Murray Creek incident where Ansel John Bowman, 57, was crushed by a log rolllng downhill while assisting a crew with a wood chipper.
“They did not have effective evaluation of the hazards for the employees working downhill from an unsecured down tree,” Polizzi said. “They were in this hazardous condition and the regulations require the employer to have evaluated that condition and trained employees on how to avoid it or work safely when they are assigned to do the work at that specific site.”
Bowman, a road maintenance worker and a 10-year county employee, was working with the Calaveras County Public Works department and a Cal Fire Conservation Camp hand crew at the site near Mountain Ranch on March 18, cleaning winter storm debris in the Butte Fire burn scar.
Polizzi said the employers failed to assess the hazard of the 68 foot, 30.5 inches in diameter and 11,040 pound downed Ponderosa pine, 37 feet and 8 inches uphill from the tree-debris processing worksite on the 12-foot wide Doster Road.
The determination also said the agencies did not have a qualified tree worker conduct a job briefing before the job began, Polizzi said.
Both citations were classified as “serious,” which is more severe than a general/regulatory citation, but potentially less severe than repeat or willful violations.
Cal Fire and the public works department were penalized separately with $18,000 citations for both violations, totalling $72,000.
Polizzi said both agencies have 15 working days, or until Oct. 9, to file an appeal or pay the penalty.
Albert Alt, Calaveras County Administrative Officer, provided a brief statement via email which said the county is reviewing the citation.
“The County, as I am sure is the case with Bowman family, remains deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life,” he said.
Alt said he could not provide any additional comment.
Joshua Pack, Calaveras County director of Public Works and Transportation, and members of Calaveras County Counsel could not be reached for comment.
Following the issuance of a Cal Fire accident investigation report in April, Pack said the county was conducting an investigation of the incident.
Pack said he had no time frame for the completion of the investigation, but stated his intention to release it.
Scott McLean, deputy chief with Cal Fire, said their agency planned to appeal the citations, but he did not know what the basis of the appeal would be.
“They're generic, general,” McLean said of the citations. “The appeals are being written up at this time, so I don’t have any further information.”
Polizzi said the investigation into the incident occurred over a six month period because Cal/OSHA conducted interviews with employees, witnesses and supervisors and may have conducted technical tests.
According to an accident investigation report conducted by Cal Fire, also known as a Green Sheet, an inmate from the Cal Fire work crew was removing branches from a fallen log a few minutes before 10 a.m.
Less than 20 minutes later, a crew member heard a loud snap and yelled, “rolling downhill! Rolling downhill!”
The side of the stump hit Bowman, who raised his left arm to brace for the impact, and hit a crew member who was feeding a woodchipper attached to a truck.
Bowman was killed and the crew member reportedly sustained minor injuries.
The Cal Fire report identified 14 handcrew members, a Cal Fire Fire captain, and two Calaveras County road maintenance workers at the site. Their investigation was conducted by the Cal Fire Serious Action Review Team (SART), which utilized light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology to measure time, distance, space and elevation.
The Ponderosa pine was believed to have been downed in the fall of 2018, months before the accident, the report said.
Michael Mohler, a deputy chief with Cal Fire, said in April Cal Fire did not down the tree because the style of cut at the stump was not authorized by Cal Fire policy and there were no records indicating crews had done previous work in that area.
Pack also said neither the county nor their contractors cut down the tree.
And though the Cal Fire report did not conclude that trimming the branches off the log was what caused it to roll downhill, the Cal/OSHA report listed it in a narrative summary under “causes and conclusions.”
McLean said he has not received any further information regarding the cause of why the log rolled downhill.
The investigation was conducted by the Cal/OSHA Modesto District Office, who was notified of Bowman’s death approximately an hour after the incident, according to a Cal/OSHA report.
Cal/OSHA officials were dispatched to the scene and arrived there at about 12:30 p.m.
Cal Fire and Calaveras County Public Works were deemed equally responsible because they shared the worksite, Polizzi said.
The Cal/OSHA report also noted the county public works supervisor was “with another road crew on the next road over,” but Polizzi said that did not necessarily mean a “qualified tree worker” specified in the second citation was absent from the scene.
The penalties were determined based on California law guidelines which account for the severity of the hazard and injury, the size of the employer and other factors, Polizzi said, and were considered “proposed” until the conclusion of the expected appeal process.
Appeals are forwarded to the Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board at the Department of Industrial Relations.
An administrative law judge will first conduct a settlement conference over the phone between the agencies and Cal/OSHA. If the settlement fails, then the judge will make a ruling on the penalties at a hearing, Polizzi said.
If penalties are paid, they are forwarded into the state’s general fund.
Polizzi said Wednesday there was no record of appeals being filed by either agency at this time.
McLean said the last incident where Cal Fire was cited by Cal/OSHA was in May 2019 and related to the Camp Fire.
McLean said those citations had since been appealed and the agency was awaiting a decision. He said there were two separate citations of $18,000 and $36,000 related to the incident, but he did not know what the citations alleged.
Cal Fire has registered six accidents statewide, including one fatality, since the Doster Road incident. All those cases remain open and, including the Doster Road incident, do not have violation records registered with the United States Department of Labor.
The most recent accident was on Sept. 6 with a location on the 700 block of Mountain Ranch Road in San Andreas.
The Calaveras County Public Works Department most recently before the Doster Road incident registered Cal/OSHA violations from two separate complaints in 2014 and paid $2,895 total in penalties.
The July 2014 incident arose from a complaint regarding heat illness and outdoor workers, Polizzi said.
Two citations totalling $9,500 were reduced by settlement to $1,275.
In March 2014 five citations were issued related violations of safe practices for construction work. The county paid $1,620, and there was no record of an appeal, Polizzi said.