Firefighters shelter behind a fire engine while battling the Sherpa Fire in June 2016.
Firefighters shelter behind a fire engine while battling the Sherpa Fire in June 2016. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department file photo)

The California Supreme Court has ruled that a Presbyterian church camp can be held liable for an employee’s actions that caused the Sherpa Fire more than five years ago.

The wildland fire sparked in the 2500 block of Refugio Canyon Road in June 2016 and burned nearly 7,500 acres of land on the Gaviota Coast. 

Federal, state and local authorities dispatched more than 2,000 firefighters to battle the blaze, with Cal Fire spending more than $12 million in costs for fighting the flames and later investigating the cause. 

“Cal Fire ultimately determined the Sherpa Fire had started on the property of Presbyterian Camp and Conference Centers Inc. (Presbyterian), when Presbyterian’s employee removed a smoldering log from a malfunctioning fireplace in one of Presbyterian’s cabins,” the Dec. 27 ruling by Associate Justice Joshua Groban said.

The state fire agency sought to recover costs from the property owner, which contended it wasn’t liable “because the fire was not started by an employee’s authorized or ratified act or by Presbyterian’s failure to act — there was no basis to impose direct liability.”

“The question before us is whether a corporation like Presbyterian can be held vicariously liable for the cost of suppressing fires that its agents or employees negligently or unlawfully set or allowed to escape,” the ruling stated. “For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal.”

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle originally presided over the case first filed in 2018.

On June 15, 2016, after a fire in a fireplace began to fill a Rancho La Scherpa cabin with smoke because of a chimney malfunction, Presbyterian on-site employee Charles Eugene Cook III, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, relocated a smoldering log to an outdoor fire pit.

“Burning embers from the log fell onto the dry vegetation surrounding the cabin and ignited a fire,” the ruling stated. “That fire — the Sherpa Fire — spread rapidly to neighboring properties.”

The ranch name is spelled Scherpa, but the blaze was incorrectly spelled as Sherpa, which remained.

“Based on its investigation of how the fire began, Cal Fire concluded that numerous forms of negligence and misdemeanor fire safety violations contributed to the ignition and uncontrolled spread of the fire,” the ruling states. “These included the kindling of a fire in a malfunctioning fireplace, the failure to adequately maintain that fireplace, the transporting of a smoldering log over dry vegetation, the failure to clear vegetation within 100 feet of the cabins, the failure to provide smoke detectors, and the failure to provide fire extinguishers or adequate water sources.”

The legal dispute centered on a Health and Safety Code chapter regarding liability for fires, and Supreme Court justices delved into the history of the law allowing the state to recover the costs of fighting and investigating wildfires caused by human negligence. 

Supreme Court justices determined the law does make employers legally responsible for an employee’s wrongful acts. 

“To decide otherwise would misread the plain language of the statutes enacted by the Legislature, undermine the legislative history, and cast aside the goals and purposes that underpin the statutes at issue.  Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion,” the justices concluded. “The stay of proceedings previously issued by this court is dissolved.”

A neighbor, La Paloma Ranch LLC and Eric P. Hvolboll filed another civil lawsuit in 2017 against the church organization, claiming property damage and injuries, including a broken leg, because of the fire. The blazed damaged crops, avocado orchards, commercial coffee trees, fencing, irrigation systems, water pumps, roads, power lines and more, according to the La Paloma civil complaint.

The two cases since have been consolidated in Santa Barbara County Superior Court. 

Click here to read the California Supreme Court’s ruling regarding the lawsuit over Sherpa Fire costs.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at