California lumber mill was ‘a ticking time bomb’ before deadly wildfire began, lawsuit says

Another Weed resident is suing the owner of the lumber mill linked to last month’s deadly wildfire, blasting the company for storing hot ash in a warehouse that burned to the ground.

Robert Davies, 61, whose home was destroyed when the Mill Fire spread through Weed, sued Roseburg Forest Products Co., claiming the company failed to install a functioning sprinkler system that could have prevented the disaster.

Two people were killed when fire leapt from Roseburg’s property to the nearby Lincoln Heights neighborhood the afternoon of Sept. 2. Davies’ lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, is at least the third lawsuit filed against Roseburg.

Investigators from Cal Fire are focusing on an old warehouse, known as Shed 17, where the fire appears to have started. Roseburg has acknowledged storing hot ash — the residue from the company’s nearby wood-burning electricity plant — in a concrete bunker inside the building. Roseburg says a faulty sprinkler might have allowed the fire to ignite.

The lawsuit called Shed 17 “a ticking time bomb” and claimed the ash had started fires “on a frequent basis — with the exact number of these internally-combated ‘near miss’ catastrophes unknown to the public because no formal reports to administrative agencies were generated by Roseburg managers.”

State and local officials couldn’t provide evidence that fire inspectors had ever gone inside the warehouse, according to a recent Sacramento Bee investigation. Weed’s fire chief told The Bee that he’s aware of at least two small fires inside the building in recent years.

The lawsuit said that Roseburg relied “on its own employees” to put out the fires rather than fix the building’s fire-suppression system.

“Roseburg chose to save money, jeopardizing the safety of its employees and the general public instead of designing and maintaining a robust fire suppression system,” Davies’ lawyer, Frank Pitre of the Bay area law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy.

Davies fled as flames raced toward his home, according to the lawsuit.

When he returned to his property, he found only burned-out vehicles and the metal remnants of furniture, photos attached to the lawsuit show.

Also lost in the fire: his late wife’s ashes, which were in an urn atop the mantle.

“Now,” the lawsuit says, “because of a fire Roseburg should have prevented, he will never be allowed to honor his pledge and scatter his wife’s ashes in Greece in accordance with her last wishes.”

The building is on the outskirts of Weed, in unincorporated Siskiyou County. The Bee’s investigation found that the county, which contracts with Cal Fire for fire-protection services, could have asked the state agency to inspect Shed 17 but didn’t. Local and state government officials weren’t able to provide any records documenting whether they’d checked if Shed 17 had a functioning sprinkler system.

Reporters also found that the lack of oversight at Shed 17 isn’t unique.

State laws require annual inspections at certain buildings, such as schools, apartment complexes and hotels, to make sure they meet California’s fire codes. But those inspection requirements don’t cover certain industrial facilities, including warehouses such as Shed 17.

Because of staffing shortages, fire officials in rural Northern California counties said they struggle to inspect all of the buildings for which they’re responsible.

And even if fire officials had found the time to inspect Shed 17, no fire agency had been assigned to do so.

The Mill Fire might end up being a “wake up call to local government,” said Robert Rowe, founder of Pyrocop, Inc., a Southern California fire investigation and consulting company.

“There may be just a huge gap with regard to fire prevention duties in parts of Siskiyou County as well as the city of Weed,” Rowe said. “There may have been just this huge void of enforcement and nobody picked up on it.”

Pete Hillan, a Roseburg spokesman, declined comment on the Davies lawsuit.