The man who shot a burning flare across the Yuba River and started the Bullards Bar Fire in the Sierra foothills was acting outside his employment with the Midwest Demolition Co., according to a representative of the Nebraska company sued by Cal Fire for $3.6 million in fire costs.
John Zapata, who is semi-retired from the demolition company that his daughter is president of, said the state fire agency developed the idea of two fires in 2010 at Bullards Bar when 1,307 acres burned after company foreman Christopher J. Martin shot the flare.
“They had to come up with this wild-ass two-fire theory,” Zapata said Tuesday. “It’s all about money.”
The double fires allow the state to sue Midwest Demolition, which the U.S. Geological Survey contracted with to dismantle a gauging station about a mile downstream from the Bullards Bar Dam, Zapata said.
Zapata acknowledged that Martin, on Aug. 27, 2010, fired the military distress signaling device, known as a pencil flare, after finding it among abandoned mining equipment about 100 yards from the Geological Survey gauging site.
“We just think he had a moment of stupidity,” Zapata said. “He was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing.”
Cal Fire, in its lawsuit filed Aug. 7 in Superior Court, said Martin shot the flare that landed in dry brush to start a fire and disguise that the Midwest Demolition crew improperly used a hot saw that caused sparks and originally started a fire. The equipment is a high-speed power tool that cuts through metal and concrete.
The hot saw was used without adequate fire suppression equipment or clearing the work area of all flammable material within 10 feet, according to Cal Fire. The blaze Martin started merged with the other fire started by the improper use of the hot saw, the lawsuit states.
“Martin implicated a fictitious person and convinced members of his work crew to disseminate information that they observed a gold miner or camper in the area” who likely started the fire, the lawsuit asserts.
He later recanted his story and admitted he invented it to conceal that Midwest Demolition accidentally started the fire when using the hot saw, according to Cal Fire.
A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which is representing Cal Fire, referred a request for comment to the state fire agency.
Daniel Berlant, a Cal Fire representative, said, “We have an obligation to recoup the costs. “The state spends millions of dollars fighting fires,” he said, with costs in California reaching $150 million so far this year.
“Our investigators did determine that there were two separate fires that did burn into one,” Berlant said. “We’re not just going to go out and make up a theory.”
Zapata contends the dual fire theory is the only way Cal Fire “can get into the pocket of the insurance company” representing Midwest Demolition. He called Martin “a good foreman.”
“You’ve got to know Christopher Martin,” Zapata said. “He wouldn’t hurt a soul.”
Ryan McCarthy is a reporter with the Appeal Democrat in Marysville. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 749-4780.