The forest fire was among the most devastating in California history, the U.S. Justice Department said. Besides old growth trees destroyed, the fire also destroyed thousands of acres of critical habitat reserved for sensitive species, including the California spotted owl, the northern goshawk and the American martin.
The Moonlight Fire began Sept. 3, 2007, on private land in Plumas County, Calif., and blazed for more than two weeks, the U.S. Justice Department said. The fire eventually consumed about 65,000 acres of land, more than 46,000 public lands in the Plumas and Lassen National Forests.
The Moonlight Fire was the result of logging operations by industry giant Sierra Pacific Industries and its contractor, the department alleged in a statement. Two employees operated bulldozers in a remote area on a "red flag warning" day -- high fire danger weather declared by the National Weather Service.
The employees were unsupervised, and the fire ignited when the track or blade of one of the bulldozers struck a rock and created sparks that ignited the surrounding dry ground fuels, the department said.
The fire went undetected for some time, the department said, because the employees did not conduct their company-required fire patrol after shutdown. The department said the designated fire watch employee left and drove 30 minutes away to get a soda. When he returned over an hour later, the fire was obvious, but the employee had no means of reporting it.
The logging company denies liability for the fire.
A jury trial in the department's suit was scheduled to begin on July 9 in Sacramento before the settlement of $55 million in cash and the conveyance of 22,500 acres of land in California owned by Sierra Pacific.