The agencies that battle California wildfires every year rely on an army of private contractors for key firefighting roles.
But two incidents during last year’s Soberanes Fire in Big Sur — one that killed a bulldozer operator and another that seriously injured a water tender driver — reveal that many of those involved in what amounts to a wildfire gig economy regularly face potentially deadly conditions with little or no guarantee of basic protections.
For example, the contractors who hired 35-year-old Robert Reagan, the bulldozer operator killed in the early days of the Soberanes Fire last July, and John Tiersma, a 60-year-old water tender driver injured six weeks later, did not carry workers’ compensation insurance.
Public records requests, court documents and interviews have uncovered new details about the incidents, which are the subject of at least six investigations.
Labor law and heavy equipment experts, as well as critics of the way wildfires are fought in California, say the accidents shine a light on worker-protection issues arising from the reliance on large numbers of private contractors.
Data from the U.S. Forest Service suggest it’s relatively unusual for contract heavy equipment operators to be involved in major accidents.
But it’s evident that these “call when needed” workers are vulnerable on the job, says Veena Dubal, an associate professor of law at UC Hastings who specializes in employment law and reviewed the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s (Cal/OSHA) full investigative reports into the Reagan and Tiersma incidents for KQED.
“These people who are risking their lives have no recourse and their families have no recourse,” Dubal said. “They were putting their lives on the line to save California forests, to save California families.”
That lack of protection is similar to what workers face in the growing gig economy, which relies on contractors to perform a wide range of jobs, such as driving passengers for Uber and Lyft.
“This is no different, what’s happening with these guys. It just didn’t happen to occur through a smartphone,” said Craig Peters, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Veen law firm who specializes in heavy equipment and construction-site injuries.
“These two cases highlight the human tragedies that can occur when basic health and safety laws are violated,” said Laura Stock, director of UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program. “These stories also highlight the need for state and federal agencies to do a better job in vetting the contractors they bring in.”
“It’s very challenging, I would say dangerous, trying to operate heavy equipment on these steep, winding, generally poorly maintained roads,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. “It’s an accident waiting to happen, no matter who is behind the wheel.”
Death of a Dozer Operator
The Soberanes Fire started in Garrapata State Park, on the northern end of Big Sur’s typically rugged terrain, on July 22. As the fire spread, Cal Fire began bringing in contractors, including dozer operators, to try to contain it.
Cal/OSHA records say that on July 24, Cal Fire called in Czirban Concrete Construction, an agency bulldozer contractor in the Madera County town of Coarsegold.
The firm’s owner, Ian Czirban, then texted a friend, Robert Reagan, to ask whether he was available.
“Hey bro can you do it?” Czirban asked. Reagan agreed, saying he wasn’t working on another fire at the time.
Two nights later, on the evening of Tuesday, July 26, Reagan arrived at the fire and prepared to take over Czirban’s bulldozer from another operator.
But minutes after he began moving the dozer to its assigned position, the machine tipped over on a steep embankment. Reagan, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the dozer’s cab and killed as the machine rolled over onto him.
State workplace officials have cited Czirban Concrete Construction for several violations connected to Reagan’s death. The most serious penalty was for not ensuring Reagan wore his seat belt. Czirban did not appeal the citations and paid $20,000 in fines, according to Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza.
Cal/OSHA also issued two citations to Cal Fire, one for failing to report a serious injury within eight hours and another for failing to maintain an effective injury and illness prevention program.
“The employer failed to ensure a supervisor was in the immediate area during all bulldozer activities,” Cal/OSHA compliance officer Kelly Tatum wrote in the agency’s citation.
Cal Fire, which also faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Reagan’s wife and two young daughters, has appealed the findings.
No Workers’ Compensation Insurance
Meanwhile, another state agency is moving to revoke Czirban’s contractor’s license.
The Contractors State License Board alleged earlier this month that Czirban violated three state regulations in connection with its work on the Soberanes Fire. The agency says the company lied about whether it had employees to get around offering workers’ compensation insurance — coverage that would provide Reagan’s children hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits.
Czirban had its license suspended eight times by the board in four years — several times because of workers’ comp issues.
Cal Fire’s emergency equipment rental agreements require that private contractors provide copies of their workers’ compensation coverage.
“We expect vendors to comply with the clauses spelled out in our Emergency Equipment Rental Agreements,” said Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton, in an emailed statement.
“Under the terms of these agreements, vendors choosing to do business with the state must affirm they meet all our requirements,” Upton said. “One such requirement is that vendors have either worker’s compensation or that they undertake self-insurance in accordance with provisions in the labor code.”
Cal Fire’s contract with Czirban listed an insurance policy with the State Compensation Insurance Fund that expired in January 2015, a year and a half before the Soberanes Fire.
Czirban’s lawyers have argued that the contractor was not required to carry workers’ comp insurance and that Cal Fire, not the company, was responsible for Reagan.
“It is clear that Cal Fire and its Incident Commander are in 100% control of the dozer operator’s actions, health and safety,” Justin Reden wrote in a letter to Cal/OSHA in August.
Reden said the fire agency chose the equipment, inspected it, provided operating procedures and safety protocols, and directed the operator.
Reagan was not Czirban’s employee but instead an independent contractor, Reden argued, so the company did not need to provide coverage.
Czirban and Reden have not responded to KQED’s requests for comment.
‘I Thought I Was a Goner’
The Soberanes Fire wasn’t John Tiersma’s first wildfire.
In 2015, the water tender driver had worked the Gasquet Fire Complex that burned more than 30,000 acres in Del Norte County.
Last summer he worked the Chimney Fire, which burned more than 43,000 acres and destroyed 70 structures in San Luis Obispo County.
And in September, he took a job with Tuolomne County-based Industrial Defense Development to help the U.S. Forest Service fight the Soberanes blaze.
The Big Sur fire was the closest he’d gotten to one of the big blazes.
“At the Soberanes Fire a couple of times we were fairly close to the flames,” Tiersma said in an interview from his home in Dunsmuir (Siskiyou County), conducted with the help of his wife, Cassandra.
Water tenders are essentially tanker trucks. In major wildland fires, they deliver water to fire engines and sprinkle back-country roads to keep the dust down for responding firefighters.
Tiersma’s day on Sept. 11, 2016, started early in the morning. During a Forest Service briefing he was told the fire was moving south and he was assigned to a new stretch of road that had just opened up.
His job was to fill inflatable water tanks — known as pumpkins — in an area near the Marble Peak Trail.
He checked to make sure his vehicle was carrying a full 2,300 gallons of water — almost 10 tons — and he and another water tender headed out.
His truck was moving between 5 and 10 mph, leading the other tender along a dusty road. He said he was wearing a seat belt and his driver’s side window was open.
Tiersma says he felt the vehicle’s front end sink. He tried to steer out, but that didn’t work.
“All of the sudden the road just gave way,” he said.
“Everything was breaking around me. Stuff was just flying. Dirt was coming in. I thought I was a goner,” Tiersma said. “Miraculously, I got ejected out. … I prayed to God to deliver me and he did.”
He was thrown into some bushes, in what he describes as agony and with blood flowing from a wound on his head.
The driver behind Tiersma saw the whole thing.
“All of a sudden I witnessed John rolled off the side of the mountain,” said Briteney Rooffener, according to a statement she filed with the Forest Service that was given to Cal/OSHA.
Rooffener stopped and radioed for help. She and Cory Boekhaus, a Forest Service firefighter who was riding along, shouted to Tiersma, who yelled back.
Boekhaus ran down the hill to the injured driver, who was helicoptered to a hospital in Salinas.
The rollover broke or cracked 12 of Tiersma’s ribs, bruised his spleen and broke his scapula. He had blood in his lungs and one lung had a small leak into his chest cavity.
State Blames Water Tender Contractor, Feds Suspend Firm’s Contract
So far, Tiersma has been left to deal with that long list of injuries himself.
In the immediate aftermath of Tiersma’s accident, the Forest Service urged Industrial Defense Development’s owner, Scott Harvey, to cooperate with investigators and to contact the hospitalized Tiersma.
“You have been nonresponsive to the accident investigation and the medical support for your injured employee,” wrote Steven Teves, contracting officer for the federal agency’s Pacific Southwest Region Incident Procurement office, in an email to Harvey five days after the accident.
“I highly recommend you making contact with your injured operator and provide whatever required medical coverage that is needed as required by your agreement,” Teves wrote in the email, later released to Cal/OSHA.
Like Cal Fire, the Forest Service requires its contractors to maintain workers’ compensation for its employees. But, state workplace regulators found Industrial Development Defense did not have such coverage.
Harvey refused to be interviewed by Cal/OSHA, which later levied $6,000 in fines against his firm for violations, including failure to report Tiersma’s injury.
The heavy equipment firm had 14 contracts with the federal government between 2000 and 2014. The September incident, though, prompted the Forest Service to suspend the company from contracting with the agency.
Harvey has not responded to KQED’s requests for comment.
“The Forest Service’ number one incident objective during any response is always public and firefighter safety,” agency spokeswoman Kerry Greene said in an emailed statement. “It does not matter if the firefighter is a contractor or a federal workforce employee, in terms of safety all workers are viewed the same.”
Tiersma says he’s still recuperating and believes he’ll be returning to work. Neither the Forest Service nor Industrial Defense has paid for his medical care, said his lawyer, Vesta Armstrong
“John continues to struggle with the uncertainty of obtaining compensation for his injury,” Armstrong said.