Although considered a victory, most of the victims know it is unlikely they will see much money from the court-ordered settlement. However, as they celebrate the judgment, they prepare for the future. This is the third installment in a three-part series on the 2007 Corral Canyon Fire and its affect on its victims.
By Oscar Antonino / Special to The Malibu Times
Restitution of more than $22 million has been awarded to 11 families and the state of California in the civil lawsuit filed against the three men charged with starting the November 2007 Corral Canyon Fire.
The 11 families who testified in court last Wednesday were awarded $15,607,561 as restitution, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) was awarded $7,255,098 to offset costs incurred in fighting the fire.
Although the victims of the fire do not to expect to receive much of the restitution from defendants Brian Alan Anderson, William Thomas Coppock and Brian David Franks, who are due back in court Jan. 10 to work out monthly payment, they were happy about the outcome of the hearing.
“I am pleased with the judge’s decision,” witness Carrie Karuhn said. “I think she [Superior Court Judge Judith Spears] recognized how much was lost.”
Karuhn was an owner of one of the 53 homes that were destroyed in the Corral Canyon Fire. For three years she and many of her neighbors have been trying to rebuild and recover from a disaster that, for many, has meant starting over from scratch.
“You don’t realize what you have in your home until it’s all gone,” she said.
In the three years of the ups and downs of dealing with insurance companies and building permit agencies, many of the residents have continued to fight the protracted legal battles that have now culminated in this decision.
Earlier this year, Anderson and Coppock, were each charged with felonies and sentenced to one year in county jail along with five years of probation and 500 hours of community service. The third defendant, Franks, was sentenced to five years probation and 300 hours of community service after testifying against the other defendants. Two other defendants in the case, Dean Allen Lavorante and Eric Matthew Ullman, in October were sentenced to five years probation and ordered to do 500 hours of community service following no contest pleas to recklessly causing the fire. Original felony charges against Lavorante and Ullman were reduced to misdemeanors because, while the two had started the fire, they left before the second group of defendants arrived and caused the fire to spread. Judge Susan Speer had also determined that Lavorante and Ullman were not responsible for millions of dollars in restitution charges, but they each must pay a $1,000 fine.
These victories for the victims come on the heels of a failed mass action lawsuit against the state. After being dismissed by California’s 2nd District Court of Appeals, a petition for review was subsequently denied by the state Supreme Court.
James Devitt, attorney for the Corral Canyon residents, said the courts ruled that, despite the fire having ignited on state lands, Cal Fire was not guilty of negligence for not patrolling the area later into the night, nor was it responsible for installing a gate at the end of the road.
The judicial restitution now awarded to the homeowner fire victims is the only compensation they were awarded aside from insurance claims. Both the City of Malibu and Los Angeles County were exempt from culpability, while the FEMA program, as mandated by law, only offered financial assistance to individuals who had no insurance policies.
Preparing for the future
Despite the challenges that residents have faced for the past three years, the community has continued to maintain an eye toward the future. They have campaigned vigorously for new policies and better preparedness measures so that something like this never happens to them again.
Richard Halsey, president of the California Chaparral Institute, said that to better understand what measures and resources are needed to fight these types of fires, understanding fire’s role in this environment is essential. “Chaparral is not the enemy. It’s the lack of understanding of the environment we live in,” he said.
Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains are part of the chaparral wilderness, a shrub-land ecosystem. Chaparral has what is known as a crown fire regime, meaning that the fire consumes the entire system within its perimeter whenever they burn.
“Typically hundreds of thousands of acres [burn] Š that’s the natural course of events,” Halsey said.
The California Emergency Management Agency also reports that although more than 4,700 acres burned in this fire, it was a “relatively small fire” for this type of habitat.
Although considered small, it caused more than $100 million in damages and cost more than $7 million to contain. The resources utilized included more than 1,700 firefighters and almost 30 aircraft, including a DC-10 jumbo jet, amphibious airplanes and 15 helicopters. Also, six firefighters were injured as a result of their efforts; all received carbon monoxide poisoning, and one man received moderate facial burns.
Many residents have become convinced that even with all the resources the Los Angeles County Fire Department has, the standard firefighting procedures will leave their homes vulnerable in the event of a similar situation in the future.
“They need to have equipment pre-positioned,” resident Brian Weiss said.
Mostly because of efforts by Corral Canyon’s Fire Safety Alliance, there is now not only equipment pre-positioned strategically throughout the canyon, there are trained volunteers to help use those fire fighting tools. Some of the volunteers are the 10 men who will soon be Call Firefighters for the county, and will operate their own truck, Fire Engine 271. Also, a volunteer Corral Canyon Fire Response Team was established to deploy and operate four “quick response” pickup trucks, which are equipped with 100-gallon foam tanks. The volunteers are also trained to operate hydrants and hoses.
In addition to these resources, the volunteer vigilante team, Arson Watch, will patrol the canyon and surrounding areas regularly.
Residents are hopeful that these measures, along with more road signage, better enforcement of parking restrictions, and education for both residents and visitors about fire hazards will lead to better fire suppression tactics moving forward. Perhaps the most gratifying results of the fire, however, were the intangibles. “We have created a real community of people who have come together to help each other,” resident Matt Haines said.