A federal appeals court today ruled against landowners who sued the federal government to recover for damages arising out of the huge 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego. The fire originated in the Cleveland National Forest when a lost hunter apparently started a signal fire, which swiftly grew out of control and spread into other landowners' properties. By the time the Cedar Fire was contained, over 280,000 acres and 2,800 buildings had been destroyed, and 15 people had been killed. The damages were estimated to be in the range of $200 million, which is about what the landowners sued for.
A lower court had also ruled against the homeowners, reasoning that unless the lost hunter was acting as an agent for the government, the government could not have been the "cause" of the fire. Nevertheless, landowners appealed, claiming that the U.S. Forest Service's land management policies were to blame for the "taking" of their property without proper compensation.
The court was not sympathetic, however, noting that the Forest Service's policy was not "not one authorized action but a set of intertwined, authorized actions" by the government. It was not fair for landowners to "cherry-pick parts of the Forest Service policy which they argue have increased the risk of wildfire since 1911 without acknowledging that much of the Forest Service policy over the last century has been devoted to reducing the risk of wildfire."
Property owners should be aware that it is a significant challenge to be successful in these kinds of "takings" claims against the government, particularly when third parties get in the way of what otherwise might have been a closer case. Had a lightning strike started the fire instead of a reckless lost hunter, arguably the court might have been more sympathetic. On the other hand, "[f]ires are an unavoidable fact of life in Southern California" and the case illustrates the importance of obtaining proper insurance for disasters that are a very real risk.
Property owners should make sure that they inform themselves about the specific natural hazards in the area where they live, and then take proper steps to procure the right insurance coverage for their needs. It's not enough to just buy a policy, however, and property owners should make an accurate home inventory which will make it far easier for them to deal with their insurer in the event a disaster strikes. Below are some links to excellent Web resources regarding disaster preparedness and tips for obtaining the right insurance coverage.