Firefighters work the Sherpa Fire on the La Paloma Ranch in 2015. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously this week that Presbyterian Camp and Conference Centers Inc. (PCCC), the company that owns and operates the mountaintop Rancho La Scherpa retreat center, is financially liable for the 2016 Sherpa Fire that burned nearly 7,500 acres of the Gaviota Coast. The ruling allows Cal Fire to recoup $12.2 million in firefighting costs from PCCC and affirms the legal precedent that a private corporation can be held legally responsible for the expense of suppressing and investigating wildfires that were negligently started by their employees.

In this case, the ruling stated, the Sherpa Fire was started by PCCC employee Charles Cook, who lived at and maintained the property. On June 15, 2016, a malfunctioning chimney in one of the cabins caused it to fill with smoke. Cook grabbed a smoldering log from the fireplace and carried it to an outdoor fire pit. It was a particularly gusty day, and sparks from the log ignited nearby vegetation. The ensuing blaze prompted widespread evacuations, closed beaches and Highway 101, and took more than 2,000 firefighters nearly a month to extinguish. No injuries were reported, and only one structure was destroyed. (A written typo during initial dispatches dropped the “c” from “Scherpa,” and the misspelling of the incident stuck.)

PCCC attorneys had argued that, per a minor amendment in 1971 to California’s Health and Safety Code, findings of corporate liability ought to be limited to negligent acts committed with the direction, authorization, or ratification of a sufficiently high-ranking corporate official. The panel of seven judges disagreed, stating, “We find Presbyterian’s theory to be both an arbitrary interpretation of the law and one that is difficult to apply on a practical basis.”

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