CAL FIRE Sues Burger Chain over 2017 Wildfire

According to CAL FIRE's lawsuit, a tractor mowing grass on an Arroyo Grande property owned by the In-and-Out fast food chain started the September 2017 blaze.

The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)
Cal Fire (ca)
CAL FIRE

Fast food chain In-N-Out was responsible for a 2017 grass fire in rural Arroyo Grande, a lawsuit filed by CAL FIRE in San Luis Obispo Superior Court alleges.

According to the lawsuit, a wildfire sparked Sept. 20, 2017 on a property owned by In-N-Out at 9815 Huasna Road in Arroyo Grande.

The fire was caused by a tractor mowing grass on the property, CAL FIRE says in the suit — noting that the property was covered in “dry annual grasses and scattered brush, which created a receptive bed of flammable vegetation.”

According to the lawsuit, chaff built up on the mower deck before being ignited by a hot clutch and then blown off the mower deck, landing in the dry grass below. It quickly spread to the surrounding vegetation, aided in part by warm and windy temperatures that day.

The fire burned about 245 acres in four days before being fully contained Sept. 24, according to Tribune archives.

“Wildland fires such as the Huasna Fire ordinarily do not happen unless someone was negligent,” read the lawsuit.

In-N-Out owns and maintains the piece of land, according to the lawsuit. It is unclear for what purpose the fast food chain owns the land, since it is not close to the Arroyo Grande In-N-Out restaurant.

The lawsuit alleges that the tractor driver allowed the fire to spread to the surrounding grass and brush; it also alleged that the tractor was improperly maintained, resulting in the failed clutch that sparked the fire.

CAL FIRE is asking for approximately $1.2 million from the burger chain to recover costs associated with fire suppression, investigation, report-making, accounting and collection.

According to the suit, CAL FIRE sent letters of demand of payment to In-N-Out on March 13 and Aug. 30, but as of the filing had not received any payment from the company.

A request for comment from In-N-Out representatives was not returned Thursday.

As of Thursday, the company has not filed a response in court. A case management conference is scheduled for Jan. 23.

CAL FIRE has previously sued companies for damages related to wildfires that start on their properties — although the agency is not always successful.

A long, drawn-out legal battle ensued after CAL FIRE claimed the 2007 Moonlight Fire in Lassen and Plumas National Forests was started by Howell’s Forest Harvesting.

The company fought back in appeals and lawsuits claiming that CAL FIRE's investigation was corrupt and that the agency falsified the Official Report, manufactured evidence, tampered with evidence and lied under oath.

In 2014, a judge ruled that CAL FIRE had engaged in “pervasive and “egregious” discovery abuses, according to a report by Downey Brand, which represented Howell’s Forest Harvesting. The state agency was ordered to pay more than $32 million in fees.

Staff writer Matt Fountain contributed to this report.

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