Plumes of smoke seen from Idyllwild during the 2013 Mountain Fire. Photo by Jenny Kirchner

Last year, the California Attorney General’s Office, on behalf of its client, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire, filed a lawsuit in state court against Dr. Tarek M. Shawaf, and his employees, seeking millions of dollars in damages owing to the 2013 Mountain Fire, which began on his Mountain Center property.

When the Riverside County Superior Court website recently showed that the previously set Mandatory Settlement Conference date in that case had been vacated, (postponed indefinitely), the Town Crier sought to know the status of the case by serving the Attorney General with a California Public Records Act request. An attorney from the AG’s office responded, in part, that its office would not discuss the matter citing “mediation confidentiality privileges,” which is an apparent indication that the case has gone to mediation. There would be no reason — indeed, it would be improper — to invoke mediation confidentiality privileges in response to a CPRA request if the case were not in mediation.

Sometimes parties to a filed lawsuit will detour a matter into mediation, usually before a retired judge, not to determine who should win the lawsuit, but to determine whether the case can be settled on mutually agreed-upon terms without a formal trial. If the mediator cannot produce a settlement, the case then returns to the superior court for trial. Reading between the lines, the AG’s response strongly suggests that the state-court 2013 Mountain Fire case currently is in mediation.

The federal-court 2013 Mountain Fire case was filed in the Central District of California (Los Angeles) by the U.S. Attorney’s Office just this past July. It is less far along than the state-court matter.

The Town Crier will continue to monitor both lawsuits.

The Mountain Fire ignited in Mountain Center early July 2013. It caused evacuations in Idyllwild and other areas, burned 27,531 acres, destroyed 23 structures and cost $25.8 million.