California wildfire victims identified as family sues owner in Mill Fire

The son of an immigrant from the Philippines who was killed in the fire that torched nearly 100 homes in Weed earlier this month is suing the owner of the sawmill on whose property the fire started.

Joselito Bereso Candasa has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Roseburg Forest Products Co., claiming his mother — Lorenza Mondoc Glover, 65 — was one of two victims of the mill fire in Siskiyou County.

Separately, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday identified the other victim as 73-year-old Marilyn Hilliard. As of Wednesday, the county had not identified any of the victims.

Candasa’s lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in her hometown of San Francisco, says her mother died Sept. 2 as she frantically tried to escape the flames that started on the Roseburg property and quickly spread. spread to the nearby Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Weed, where she lived. Glover was a widowed housekeeper who died less than a month before her 66th birthday.

The fire apparently started in or near a giant warehouse known as “Shed 17” on the property of Roseburg Forest Products, which erupted in a vortex of flames and black smoke.

Powerful winds blew the flames and embers into Lincoln Heights, Weed’s historically black neighborhood, which sits adjacent to the factory property.

“These people had no warning,” Candasa attorney Russell Reiner of Redding said. “Lincoln Heights that day burned down in five to seven minutes.”

Hot ashes in the warehouse may have started a fire

For more than a decade, Roseburg has operated a cogeneration plant that turns unused wood into electricity. Last week, the company admitted that it was storing hot ash from the biomass plant in a concrete bin inside Hangar 17. The bin – virtually the only structure that survived the fire – did not have a lid.

The company said a sprinkler system, provided by a third-party supplier, was supposed to keep the ashes cool and moist. Roseburg did not identify the vendor, but said it was investigating the correct operation of the system.

In an interview, Reiner said that “in all likelihood the ashes on the Roseburg property” ignited the fire, and the company knew that the fires on the property posed a threat to the adjacent community. The weed has powerful winds that blow out most afternoons, he said.

“Everyone in this area of ​​Weed knows … the wind is a major issue,” Reiner said.

The Mill Fire destroyed 118 homes and other buildings, mostly in Weed and Lake Shastina, while burning 3,395 acres; it is now 100% contained.

Abner Weed, the lumber baron who bears the town’s name, chose the location to build a sawmill after discovering “that the region’s strong winds were helpful in drying timber”, according to the town’s website. .

Reiner also filed a separate lawsuit in Siskiyou County on behalf of another homeowner, Tim Smith, who lost his home that day. The lawsuit said Smith also suffered bodily injuries in the fire.

Reiner, a partner at the law firm Reiner, Slaughter, Mainzer & Frankel, said he represents more than 40 Siskiyou County families who lost their homes in the mill fire. Another Weed family, the Hammonds, who are represented by another company, sued Roseburg last week for the destruction of their home.

The Hammonds’ lawsuit says Roseburg “failed to manage, cool, control and maintain this waste ash and the hot ash ignited the mill fire.” He adds that Roseburg was aware of “a high risk of an uncontrollable fire” in the warehouse.

Robert Julian, Roseburg’s attorney, said he could not comment on the lawsuits.

Several current and former employees told The Sacramento Bee that fires had started inside the warehouse over the years but were quickly extinguished.

Company officials said they had no information to confirm this, and local officials have yet to respond to The Bee’s requests for information about previous fires inside the building.

Julian told The Bee on Wednesday that Cal Fire officials cordoned off key parts of the warehouse site and told Roseburg to put the company’s investigation on hold until Cal Fire finished going through the premises.

“Cal Fire has asked us not to comment on the investigation until it is complete,” he said.

Although Roseburg has not admitted any liability, “the company acknowledges … that the fire started on its property,” he added.

Last week, Roseburg announced it was setting up a $50 million community fund to help those who have lost their homes and vehicles find shelter, food and transportation.

Julian said it will take a long time for insurance companies to start paying claims, and the company is trying to help residents of Weed and Shastina Lake with immediate needs such as housing and clothing.

“Roseburg is not going to sit and wait,” Julian said. “They posted these funds because they care about the community.”

Roseburg spokesman Pete Hillan said the company began distributing funds Tuesday from the Weed Community Center. About 80 families received a total of $170,000, he said.

The center will likely remain open through Saturday, and Roseburg plans to open an online site to distribute additional funds, he said.

Lawyer challenges Roseburg’s goodwill

Reiner said the lumber company didn’t create the fund “out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Rather, he said it was because the company “ultimately knows it is responsible for this fire and was negligent.”

Even before the fire, Roseburg had lost some favor in the town, despite its mill, which employed around 140 people, being a major economic engine.

Reiner said many of his customers, before the fire, were frustrated that Roseburg had recently tried to sell Weed’s water supply rights to a local bottling plant. The company sued the city after Weed pushed back on the deal.

After years of stalled negotiations and counter-suits, the bottling company, Crystal Geyser Roxane, agreed to purchase the water directly from Roseburg. Last year, Crystal Geyser sold Weed’s access to water for a payment of $1.2 million over 12 years.

For decades, Weed had paid the mill owner a token dollar a year to use the spring as the town’s water source.

As for Candasa, Reiner said he wasn’t ready to talk to reporters about his mother just yet.

Last week, on her mother’s Facebook account, Candasa informed Glover’s friends and loved ones of “the untimely death of my beloved mother.”

“To my mother, my prayers hold you close to my heart and may your soul rest in peace,” the post read. “I love you mom.”

Reiner said Glover came to love Lincoln Heights, a community so tight-knit that it was common for 40 or 50 neighbors to show up for a birthday party. The same would happen if someone got sick.

“It wouldn’t just be family members,” he said. “Thirty or 40 people would come and check on this person.”

Relatives of Marilyn Hilliard, the other victim of the fire, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. But last week her son Marty Hilliard, who lives in Redding, hosted a Facebook fundraiser to help his family.

As well as losing his mother to the fire, his family is also “caring for our father in intensive care in hospital,” he wrote. “My family lost our family home among countless irreplaceable memorabilia and items.”

In the 1920s, the plant was owned by the Long Bell Lumber Co., which recruited blacks from its southern mills, paid for their train fare, and moved them to Weed.

They lived in Lincoln Heights, then known as the Neighborhoods, separated from the rest of the city. In recent years, the neighborhood had become racially integrated.

Oregon-based Roseburg acquired ownership of the plant in the 1980s.

This story was originally published September 14, 2022 1:13 p.m.

Related Sacramento Bee Stories

Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, the economy and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major corporate stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.