Old Fire

A Mariposa County man has agreed to pay $950,000 to the federal government in a lawsuit stemming from a 100-acre fire he allegedly started in September 2016 in the Stanislaus National Forest, an acting U.S. Attorney in Fresno announced Monday. This photo from the Old Fire south of Highway 120 near McCauley Ranch was tweeted by Stanislaus National Forest staff on Sept. 14, 2016.

A Mariposa County man has agreed to pay $950,000 to the federal government in a lawsuit stemming from a 100-acre fire he allegedly started in September 2016 on his land adjacent to the Stanislaus National Forest, an acting U.S. Attorney in Fresno announced Monday.

Forest Service investigators concluded resident John “Jack” Welch ignited the Old Fire on Sept. 13, 2016, while he used an excessively worn chainsaw on his property in a high fire hazard area off Old Yosemite Road in Mariposa County, south of Buck Meadows and Rainbow Pool on Highway 120, east of Groveland and Greeley Hill, near Pilot Peak and McCauley Ranch.

It was a windy day and the Old Fire spread quickly, burning about 100 acres, including 95 acres of land in the Groveland Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest. There were thousands of dead and dying trees in the area due to drought and infestation. The Old Fire torched at least one stand of dead trees while pilots in tankers and helicopters worked to slow the blaze.

The Forest Service spent more than $1.2 million to extinguish the Old Fire, “including the use of substantial air assets to prevent the fire’s spread to neighboring properties and the surrounding National Forest lands,” staff with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California said.

Welch could not be reached for comment. The settlement is not an admission of any negligence, wrongful conduct or liability.

“Over the past several years, the people of the Eastern District have endured more than their fair share of wildfires,” Acting U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert said in remarks distributed Monday. 

Talbert said his staff has focused on “holding those individuals and corporations who negligently start these fires accountable” and “we will continue to pursue individuals and corporations, large and small, to recover the fire suppression costs and environmental damages caused by their negligent acts.”

Since 2012, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California has secured settlements in more than 30 different cases involving wildfire damage to federal lands, with total settlements valued at more than $300 million, Talbert’s staff said.

Federal prosecutors have yet to hold anyone accountable for two of the most devastating human-caused megablazes in recent Stanislaus National Forest history, the 2013 Rim Fire and the 2018 Donnell Fire.

In the 2013 Rim fire, a bowhunter from Columbia named Keith Matthew Emerald confessed to accidentally starting the blaze while he cooked beans and burned trash at a campsite in a steep drainage near the Clavey River. 

Emerald was indicted Aug. 7, 2014, on four counts, including violating a fire restriction order and making false statements. The charges carried a maximum sentence of 11 years and more than $500,000 in fines. He pleaded not guilty.

In March 2015, Emerald’s defense attorneys said his alleged confession was coerced, and in May 2015, federal prosecutors announced they were dropping all charges against him, in part because two key witnesses died earlier that year. The Forest Service said the Rim Fire burned 257,314 acres, destroyed 11 houses and 98 outbuildings, leveled several residential camps, caused 10 injuries, and cost $127.3 million to fight.

An escaped, unattended campfire near the east end of Donnell Reservoir was the cause of the August 2018 Donnell Fire that destroyed the Dardanelle Resort that dated to 1923, more than 50 cabins, and the 1933 Dardanelle Bridge, staff with the Stanislaus National Forest announced in December 2020.

The announcement from the U.S. Forest Service came more than two years and four months after the blaze broke out Aug. 1, 2018, prompting hundreds of campers and other forest visitors to evacuate when it blew up the weekend of Aug. 4-5, threatened Kennedy Meadows Resort & Pack Station, burned 57 square miles of mountain watersheds, and cost more than $36 million to fight before it was declared extinguished in December 2018.

The Forest Service did not say in December 2020 whether there was a suspect or suspects believed responsible for igniting the fire, or how many interviews investigators conducted over the previous 28 months. A spokesperson for the Stanislaus National Forest confirmed Tuesday that no one was ever cited, arrested, or charged with starting the 2018 Donnell Fire.

Humans cause 90 to 95% of the fires in California.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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