A family who lost their home earlier this month in a deadly fire that started at a sawmill in the Northern California town of Weed filed a lawsuit against the sawmill company on Thursday.
The suit was filed a day after Roseburg Forest Products, which has operations throughout North America, admitted the Mill Fire started at its mill in Weed but suggested it was caused by a third-party company’s sprinkler system failing to cool hot ash.
Cal Fire, which is in charge of investigating the 4,000-acre blaze that began on September 2 and is nearly contained, said Thursday that the cause of the fire, which killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes, was still being investigated.
Roseburg, according to the lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by Nichole and Shayne Hammond, acted with “negligence and conscious disregard” for the safety of the community by failing to ensure safe operations at its mill and prioritizing profits.
Residents of Weed’s Lincoln Heights neighborhood, a historic Black community founded in the early 1900s, described a fast-moving inferno that swept northward from the mill. The fire destroyed dozens of homes, with others destroyed a few miles to the north in the Lake Shastina area.
Roseburg said in a press release on Wednesday that its Weed mill generates electricity by burning wood waste, and the resulting hot ash is sprayed with water to cool it. “Roseburg is investigating whether the third-party machine failed to sufficiently cool the ash, thereby igniting the fire,” according to the release. According to the release, the company is “working closely with state and local investigators to determine if this is the case.”
The lawyer representing the Hammond family in the lawsuit, James Frantz, expressed skepticism about Roseburg’s claim that another company’s equipment may have caused the fire. Frantz, who has represented plaintiffs in fire-related lawsuits against PG&E and utility Southern California Edison, claimed Roseburg was making a “scapegoat” out of the third-party sprinkler manufacturer.
“We want to learn firsthand what (Roseburg) knew about the safety or dangers of storing that ash,” Frantz explained Thursday afternoon.
Pete Hillan, a partner at San Francisco crisis-PR firm Singer Associates, spoke on behalf of Roseburg, saying it was too early for the company to respond directly to the allegations in the lawsuit. Roseburg believes the fire was caused by a sprinkler system failure because it burned two buildings at the mill, one of which contained “active ash” in a cement bunker.
According to company promotional materials, Roseburg, founded in 1936 in Roseburg, Oregon, owns more than 600,000 acres of forest in Oregon, Virginia, and North Carolina, and has operations in more than 200 locations across North America.
Frantz said two lawyers from his firm will be holding town halls in Yreka, just north of Weed, in the coming days, and he expected more people affected by the fire to join the legal action.
Two years ago, the county disclosed that a $28.8 million incentive package for a new steel plant in north Mobile County included non-educational property and sales tax abatements. Due to the project’s goal of creating 200 direct jobs, 100 indirect jobs, and $344 million in new payroll, the state is contributing $60 million in economic incentives.