The Mountain Fire started on July 15, 2013, in Mountain Center. The original cause of the fire is now being questioned, according to James Nowlin, right, (pictured with Donna Nowlin) a defendant in the federal lawsuit until the DOJ dismissed the case against the Nowlins and Al-Shawaf earlier this month citing “new evidence.” Photo by Halie Wilson

Last week the Town Crier reported that the federal lawsuit stemming from the 2013 Mountain Fire, by which court action the United States sought to recover some $24 million in fire suppression costs and damage to federal wildlands, had been dismissed by the DOJ/U.S. Attorney’s Office without any monetary recovery to U.S. taxpayers. The DOJ/U.S. Attorney’s Office cited “new evidence” as the reason, but it declined to identify that new evidence or offer any further explanation. This raised many questions as to what factors could possibly have influenced the dismissal of the suit.
After reading last week’s Town Crier story, James Nowlin, an employee of Dr. Tarek M. Al-Shawaf (the owner of the Mountain Center property on which the fire began), who was a co-defendant with Al-Shawaf in the lawsuit, came forward to the Town Crier office with more information.
According to Nowlin, between last year’s $5-million settlement of the similar state court lawsuit — brought by Cal Fire for its suppression costs and by private homeowners whose property had been damaged — and this current nonmonetary dismissal of the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) federal court lawsuit for its costs and damages, new evidence did indeed come forth.
Nowlin related that the first responders on the scene of the Mountain Fire were two USFS firefighters, who attempted to put it out. The “new evidence,” according to Nowlin, is that attorneys for the federal court defendants had learned that those two USFS firefighters disputed the cause of the Mountain Fire that had been postulated by Cal Fire experts examining the grounds, and the defense counsel sought to obtain their depositions prior to trial.
Nowlin told the Town Crier that the two USFS firefighters said that the initial blaze they were fighting was actually at a location on the property that Nowlin estimated was about 80 feet from the electrical junction box that Cal Fire experts had deduced was the cause of the fire, and that it burned up to and through the junction box. Such testimony would undermine Cal Fire’s investigative reports that a faulty junction box on the property caused the fire — the essence of the government’s federal case against Al-Shawaf and the Nowlins — so the DOJ/U.S. Attorney decided to dismiss the case against them, Nowlin said.
Last week the Town Crier attempted to confirm this “new evidence” explanation with Zachary Behrens, USFS public information officer, but he informed that since this was a DOJ/U.S. Attorney’s Office lawsuit, he was not permitted to comment, one way or the other.
Captain Fernando Herrera, Cal Fire’s public information officer, told the Town Crier that he personally had no information about the matter. Herrera provided the number of a Cal Fire office in Sacramento that the Town Crier could contact. The Town Crier contacted that office, but has not received a response.
The Town Crier telephoned federal lawsuit defense attorneys James Lance and David Bona, but those calls have not been returned. The Town Crier also contacted Thom Mrozek, the DOJ/U.S. Attorney’s Office public information officer, for what we hope this time will be some further comment.
The Mountain Fire started on July 15, 2013. It destroyed several hill homes and structures and evacuated thousands of residents. The complaint filed by the DOJ/U.S. Attorney’s Office on July 14, 2016, alleged that “[i]nvestigators determined that the Mountain Fire ignited in a plastic electrical junction box on the Gibraltar West property. The junction box housed electrical wires running from the electrical panel of the main house on the property to a water well on the property … The junction box’s lid was warped, not properly secured, and ajar. As a result, an electrical discharge inside the box shot sparks and hot material out of the box and onto dry ground vegetation below.”
The prior-known cause is now in question due to “new evidence” received by the DOJ/U.S. Attorney’s Office.