$25 million suit filed in 2013 California wildfire

RIVERSIDE , Calif., July 15 (UPI) — A California property owner and two caretakers face a $25 million federal lawsuit which contends their negligence caused a massive 2013 wildfire.

The suit names estate owner Tarek M. al-Shawaf, a Saudi businessman, and then-caretakers James and Donna Nowlin, and states a plastic electrical box on al-Shawaf’s property was not properly closed. Sparks from the electrical box allegedly fell on dry vegetation and began the 27,000-acre 2013 Mountain Fire, which burned 23 buildings in mountains southwest of Palm Springs, Calif., forcing the evacuation of 5,000 people.

“Property owners and their agents have a responsibility to ensure that property under their control is maintained in a safe fashion,” wrote U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker in a statement.

Fighting the fire over 16 days cost the U.S. Forest Service more than $15 million, and the fire caused $9 million in environmental damage, the suit states. Prosecutors said it took 3,000 firefighters, 250 fire engines, 20 helicopters and 10 airplanes to control the fire. The federal lawsuit was filed Thursday in the Central District of California.

Attorney James R. Lance, representing the defendants, noted the suit is nearly identical to a number of lawsuits filed against al-Shawaf and the Nowlins in Riverside County Court in 2015. In June, six of those lawsuits were consolidated for the purposes of a trial. Lance said his firm’s own investigation indicates his clients did not start the fire.

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