Calif. man will pay $1 million for starting wildfire by accident

For one California man, a little fix-it job in the driveway wound up costing big – $1 million, to be exact.

This week, the U.S. Department of Justice approved a settlement with a homeowner from North Fork, east of Madera, whose attempt to sharpen a wood splitter with an electric grinder in 2001 sparked a fire in the Sierra National Forest that burned more than 4,100 acres.

The settlement marks a new chapter in the federal government's intensive push to collect damages from individuals or businesses whose actions touch off costly forest fires. California also is bolstering its efforts with new state money dedicated to a fire cost recovery team.

"We're not looking to put people on the streets," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kendall J. Newman, who oversees fire litigation in the Sacramento-based Eastern District. "But we are looking to recover for the taxpayers."

The $1 million recently recovered in the August 2001 North Fork fire doesn't approach the big-dollar settlements from UP and Southern California Edison, but it makes clear that individuals are not immune – even when they start a fire by accident.

The homeowner, James Bull III, had two homeowners' insurance policies for $500,000 each that will cover the settlement. The fire he started burned for over a week near Yosemite National Park and cost an estimated $7.5 million to suppress. It also caused an estimated $2.5 million in "resource damage" — lost timber and scenery. Bull's house did not burn down.

A man answering the phone this week at the Bull home in North Fork would only say "no comment" before hanging up.

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