Cal Fire sues foundation $2.5M for cost of fighting fire

By Patrick S. Pemberton
The Tribune

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Cal Fire is suing local philanthropy group the Hind Foundation for $2.5 million, saying the foundation caused a 640-acre fire in 2012 while clearing star thistle with a mower.

In a lawsuit filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court this week, Cal Fire, represented by the state Attorney General's Office, claims the Hind Foundation, along with Lewis Construction, caused the so-called Calf Fire that occurred east of Santa Margarita in July 2012, by mowing during a dry season. Cal Fire is seeking the $2.5 million it says it cost to fight the fire.

"The defendants caused the Calf Fire through their negligent mowing operation when, in an effort to eradicate star thistle, they used a diesel-powered tractor with a mower attachment, struck rocks, created a spark that ignited surrounding vegetation, and allowed that fire to spread, without exercising ordinary care," the suit states.

Claims made in lawsuits only represent one side and have yet to be proven in court. Calls to Cal Fire, the attorney general's office and the Hind Foundation were not returned Friday. A number could not be found for Lewis Construction or its owner, Michael Lewis, who is also named in the suit.

The Hind Foundation has been a major contributor to various causes in the county. It purchased the 800-acre Hind River Ranch where the fire occurred for wildlife protection and study.

Greg Hind, co-founder of the foundation, was a prominent San Luis Obispo businessman, philanthropist and innovator. An athlete, he once won a gold medal for water polo player in the Pan American games, and in 2010 he was the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce's Citizen of the Year.

In 2010 alone, his foundation donated $1 million to Central Coast projects, according to The Tribune archives. Beneficiaries included the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly, the Community Foundation San Luis Obispo County and various land conservation projects.

Greg Hind was 66 when he died of a short illness a few months after the Calf Fire.

While Greg Hind is not mentioned by name, the suit says "Mr. Hind" was present when the mowing began.

According to the lawsuit, the Hind Foundation provided Lewis Construction a diesel-powered tractor, outfitted with a mower deck that had a 6-foot blade, and directed the clearing of thistle. Fire prevention or suppression devices, such as fire extinguishers, were not supplied, the suit states.

When the fire spread, according to The Tribune files, nearby homes had to be evacuated and some 900 firefighters were eventually called to extinguish the blaze. Spotter planes and helicopters were also employed as firefighters dropped fire retardant from the sky.

Evacuated residents were allowed to return the next day.

According to laws cited in the suit, anyone who negligently sets a fire or allows a fire to be set "is liable for the fire suppression costs incurred in fighting the fire." Also, according to laws cited in the suit, no one is allowed to use equipment that might spark a fire during a time of year when burning permits are required without having a round-point shovel and a fire extinguisher on hand to put out potential fires.

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(c)2014 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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