$25 Million Demand To Saudi Man For Causing Massive 2013 Fire

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Prosecutors from the US attorney’s office have filed a suit against a Riverside County homeowner on the grounds that negligent maintenance on his property started the “Mountain Fire” that blazed across 27,500 acres in 2013, destroying over 20 buildings and forcing thousands of locals to evacuate.

In the lawsuit filed in federal court, prosecutors allege that an electric box located on Tarek M. Al-Shawaf’s 20-acre California property shot off sparks that ignited the fire, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Al-Shawaf’s lawyer has argued with the government, saying that his client was not responsible for the fire.

The catastrophic blaze began on July 15, 2013 near Idyllwild, sweeping across a swath of mountains just southwest of Palm Springs.

It took more than 3,000 firefighters around 16 days to combat the inferno, and over 5,000 residents were forced to flee their homes.

The federal suit names Al-Shawaf, a Saudi businessman, and two of his caretakers, James and Donna Nowlin, who were hired to maintain the property, known as Gibraltar West. Al-Shawaf is the founder and president of one of Saudi Arabia’s oldest engineering and architectural companies.

According to the suit, a plastic electrical box on Al-Shawaf’s land that stored wires did not have its lid secured. An electrical discharge from the open box sent sparks off onto dry vegetation, causing the fire.

Al-Shawaf, as the owner of Gibraltar West, and his caretakers, had a responsibility “to properly inspect and maintain their electrical equipment…to ensure that they were safe, properly secured and clear from dangerous conditions,” the lawsuit stated.

US Attorney Eileen M. Decker pointed the blame at Al-Shawaf and the caretakers for endangering the lives of thousands of people, as well as those of the firefighters sent to put out the blaze.

James R. Lance, Al-Shawaf’s and the caretakers’ lawyer, contended that the lawsuit filed Thursday by the federal government was nearly identical to lawsuits filed last year in Riverside Superior Court by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and homeowners in the area.

“Our investigation indicates the fire did not start as alleged in the lawsuit filed today by the federal government,” Lance said in an email.

The lawsuit, filed in the Central District of California, seeks close to $25 million from Al-Shawaf and the caretakers. The fire cost the US Forest Service more than $15 million, and the damage to the environment cause around $9 million. “Emergency rehabilitation” cost $300,000, according to the suit.

Al-Shawaf and the caretakers did not cover the costs demanded by the Forest Service, said the prosecutors, leading to this new lawsuit.

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