A rancher in Gomez Canyon, near Rainbow "was clearing his land for crops. He had brush piles right next to standing brush -- no clearance, no burning permit. The department sued the rancher and won -- to the tune of $24,000."
One Sunday last month Karen Gonlag went out to smoke her bees. She and her husband Dan keep a few hives on ten and a half acres they own in Harbison Canyon, east of El Cajon, and in the last year the hives have yielded about 160 pounds of sage honey. The Gonlags have been planning to build a house on that same property for more than a year; in the meantime they've been living in a place they bought on Harbison Canyon Road, about a mile away.
Harbison Canyon is a small, rural community typical of San Diego County's less populous sections, where the pace of life is slow and where you might see a hand-lettered sign reading "Weaner Pigs 4-Sale" leaning against somebody's mailbox as you drive by. The terrain consists of rocky hills and canyons that provide a maximum amount of privacy for the ranch-style homes that have sprung up in little clusters along the main roads. In the summer the weather gets hot and windy, and the residents, including the Gonlags, worry a lot about fires.
It was just after noon when Karen headed up toward the hives, hidden among granite boulders on a steep rock- and brush-covered slope. The nearest house stands roughly a quarter of a mile away; somewhat closer are a small chicken ranch and a junior high school (Chaparral Middle School). To see if there was enough honey to collect Karen had to subdue her bees with a smoker, a gas-can-sized apparatus that burns twigs or leaves to produce smoke. (Smoke causes the bees to feed on honey in preparation for leaving the hive. Once gorged they become lethargic, "calm and sedate," as Karen says.)
She pried the cover off of the first hive, injected smoke into it, then set the smoker down on a nearby rock. "After that," she said later, "I don't know exactly what happened. I heard a crackle, turned around, saw flames. . . . I stamped on them, but it was almost like they exploded -- like you see on TV when they set gasoline on fire." She snatched up the smoker, ran to her truck, and drove down the road to the nearest house. "When I got out of the truck I looked back, and I could see the whole area around the hives was on fire."
The county volunteers from the Harbison Canyon fire station arrived just minutes later, alerted by a phone call from Bev Hotz, who lives in the house Karen had gone to for help. Other firefighters soon followed; altogether fifteen stations and some eighty people responded, including county volunteers, U.S. Forest Service personnel, thirty inmates from the county's honor camps at La Cima and Moreno, and eight of the state department of forestry's engines and crews. The fire burned rapidly up toward a ridge top, fueled by grasses and shrubs that have evolved in part to promote a fire (several species have high resin contents; fire burns through them so rapidly that many survive and flourish in the newly created open space). Once over the ridge it could have swept down a nearby canyon and into the heart of the community of Harbison Canyon. But the firefighters were soon joined by the department of forestry's three airplanes from the Ramona airport, and while crews from the honor camps feverishly cleared brush at the bottom of the slope, the aircraft made drops of borates and water up on the ridge. Below the action Karen Gonlag stood crying, first- and second-degree burns on her legs and feet from where she had tried to stamp out the fire.
After an hour or so the main fire had been contained, although department of forestry personnel were on the scene until 5:30 the next morning, checking hot spots and sawing apart downed oaks to make certain they weren't smoldering inside. Altogether, twenty-three acres had burned; no structures had been damaged. But Dan Gonlag was still concerned about legal consequences. "My first thought, after I knew that no one had been hurt, was a selfish one," he admits. "I wondered what would happen to us. What were we liable for?"
If this particular fire had started within the San Diego city limits, the Gonlags could have thrown their worries to the wind. Although accidentally starting a fire is a misdemeanor violation of the state health and safety code (section 13001 — "causing a fire" — maximum penalty $500 and one year in jail), no one has been cited for it in the City of San Diego for 15 or 20 years, according to Captain Art Robertson of the city's fire prevention bureau. "We make up a report for every case," he explained, "but the law states that to cite someone, the person writing the citation must observe the person who started the fire. The chances of that are slim and none." Since no structures were damaged, no insurance companies would have sued the Gonlags to recover the cost of claims.
In the county, though, the state department of forestry has jurisdiction over "wild land" fires (those on private, undeveloped land), and the department says the courts have upheld a more liberal interpretation of section 13001. Under the concept of an "ongoing misdemeanor," they claim, a department official can cite a person who accidentally starts a fire as long as the fire is still burning. When the Gonlag fire was reported, Fire Prevention Officer Butch Campbell was dispatched and arrived on the scene while the fire was still in progress. "It's like the highway patrol -- it's up to the discretion of the officer at the scene," Campbell said later. "We normally don't issue a citation unless gross negligence is involved." Campbell's supervisor at the department of forestry, Doug Allen, added, "A lot of it depends on attitude. There must be negligence involved -- it depends. Our overall concern is: Is someone going to get educated from this? Are they going to do it again?"
At the scene of the fire Campbell assured the Gonlags that Karen hadn't been negligent, that she had a good attitude (having tried to put the fire out and going for help), and that he therefore wouldn't cite her. But he also mentioned that the department might hold them responsible for "suppression costs" -- the cost of the manpower and equipment needed to put out the fire -- which could run into many thousands of dollars.
The City of San Diego doesn't sue for suppression costs in cases of accidental fire. "It just isn't a policy," according to Art Robertson. (The city will sue for the cost of damaged city property if the person who started the fire is known.) But the state department of forestry can and sometimes will sue to recover the cost of putting out a fire, and they need not have cited the person who started it in order to do so. Allen declined to speculate what percentage of the time this happens, but said that his office will take six such "suppression" cases to court from the month of June alone.
Allen said that the factors which cause the department to sue for suppression costs include the total cost of the operation, the circumstances and the person's attitude. As an example, he said his office just settled a case involving a thirty-acre fire started more than a year ago by a rancher in Gomez Canyon, near Rainbow. "The guy was clearing his land for crops," he explained. "He had brush piles right next to standing brush -- no clearance, no burning permit, it was a hot day -- and away it went up the hillside." The department sued the rancher for the cost of putting out the fire, and won -- to the tune of $24,000.
The Gonlags say that after their conversations with Butch Campbell, they don't think the department will sue them for suppression costs. But then again, they're not sure. "What did they tell you?" Dan asked a reporter who had talked with various fire officials. Doug Allen said that if the department does decide to sue, it will be on his recommendation. He added that if the amount is more that $5000 (as is almost certain), the recommendation would have to go through the department's regional office in Riverside and then on to the head office in Sacramento for a final decision. The state has up to one year to file suit, and Allen said that he himself won't have a chance to review the report on the Gonlag fire until sometime this winter. September is the height of the fire season in San Diego County and this year the department of forestry has been scrambling to deal with a record number of fires: 928 as of September 10, as opposed to 840 for all of 1978.
So Karen Gonlag won't know for many months whether or not she'll have to pay for the fire she started unwittingly that day in Harbison Canyon. Meanwhile, she and her husband have to try to return to a normal living routine, and that's just what they were doing two Saturdays ago when they heard screeching tires outside their house. The Gonlags had decided to sell their home, and were fixing up the interior -- an agent was coming to appraise it the following Monday. Dan walked out the front door to see what the commotion was just in time to witness a van plow head-on into the stone wall that borders his front yard, sending chunks of rock and cement hurtling thirty feet across the driveway. No one was hurt, including the driver, but the Gonlags had a $3000 hole in their front wall.
"The appraiser came anyway, but what are we supposed to do, show the house like this?" Dan asked one afternoon recently, eyeing the jagged wall and the box full of broken windshield pieces in his front yard. "This hasn't been one of our better summers," sighed Karen. A few days later the Gonlags bought a house in Alpine and put their charred ten and a half acres in Harbison Canyon up for sale.