Family of Bulldozer Operator Killed in Soberanes Fire Suing California

Robert Reagan, 35, of Fresno County, died July 26, 2016, when his bulldozer overturned while trying to access a proposed fire line near Big Sur.

Robert Reagan, 35, of Fresno County, died July 26, 2016, when his bulldozer overturned while trying to access a proposed fire line near Big Sur. (Cal Fire)

The relatives of Robert Reagan, who was killed while operating a bulldozer near Big Sur last year while working the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history, blame Cal Fire for his death.

A lawyer for Reagan’s widow and two children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the state of California in Monterey County Superior Court earlier this month.

Their complaint seeks “compensatory damages” in connection with the July 26, 2016, incident in which the machine the 35-year-old man was operating pinned him to the ground after tipping over on a steep embankment.

The rollover marked the first bulldozer operator fatality in a California wildfire in nearly nine years.

Cal Fire directed Reagan to an “unsafe place for a bulldozer to be,” according to the complaint.

“Cal Fire negligently acted as a spotter concerning the operation of decedent’s bulldozer,” the complaint reads. “Cal Fire’s personnel negligently supervised the operation of plaintiff’s bulldozer.”

Cal Fire declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The agency has yet to release its compete findings into the incident. But its preliminary report found that Reagan died nearly instantly after being ejected from his machine and pinned to the ground on the northwestern edge of the Sobranes Fire four days after it ignited.

His death took place in an area with steep ridges and deep canyons accessible only by a network of narrow dirt roads.

He was not wearing a seat belt at the time, an investigation by California’s Division of Occupational and Health (Cal/OSHA) concluded.

The Cal/OSHA report blames the private contractor that employed Reagan, Madera County-based Czirban Concrete Construction, for that oversight as well as several other violations.

Cal Fire’s “green sheet” recounts Reagan being briefed by another dozer operator and speaking with firefighters. At one point his machine was blocked by a fire engine, prompting him to drive toward a road that was parallel and above the first one. During that maneuver his machine tipped over down a steep slope.

The complaint was filed on March 1 by Reagan’s estate, his widow and two daughters, ages 5 and 2, who live in the Fresno County town of Friant. It is scheduled for a hearing on July 11.

The Soberanes Fire burned more than 132,000 acres last summer and fall. Investigators say it was caused by an illegal campfire. The National Interagency Fire Center says it cost more than $200 million to fight.

Family of Bulldozer Operator Killed in Soberanes Fire Suing California 22 March,2017Ted Goldberg

Author

Ted Goldberg

Ted Goldberg is the morning editor for KQED News. His beat areas include San Francisco politics, the city's fire department and the Bay Area's refineries.

Prior to joining KQED in 2014, Ted worked at CBS News and WCBS AM in New York and Bay City News and KCBS Radio in San Francisco. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1998.

You can follow him at @TedrickG and reach him on email at tgoldberg@kqed.org

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