The wildfires ravaging California over the last few years have exposed significant flaws in the emergency work practices of state and federal agencies tasked with dealing with these disasters. Five bulldozer operators have died in the line of duty over the last four years.

The wildfires ravaging California over the last few years exposed significant flaws in the emergency work practices of state and federal agencies tasked with dealing with these disasters.

At the top of the list of problems is an apparent failure in managing safety in one of the most hazardous environments where construction workers are operating heavy equipment.

Since 2016 there have been at least five equipment operator deaths, and, to make matters worse, some of the contractors who employed them did not have worker’s compensation insurance, so their families are without money for medical and burial expenses on top of their other woes. Some families have been forced on to the welfare rolls or into the courts to seek redress from the contractors, the state and federal agencies in charge.

So far, in 2019, no construction workers have died battling blazes. That was not the case last year. A private bulldozer operator, Don Ray Smith, 81, of Pollock Pines, died while operating a bulldozer fighting the Carr fire as the fire grew and roared toward Redding. Braden Varney, a bulldozer operator with Cal Fire, died fighting the Ferguson fire near Yosemite, in August. A third operator, Tony Flores, 37, Yuba City, assigned to the North Fire in Tahoe National Forest, died in a crash on the way to an incident command post in September.

Meanwhile, the courts, Cal/OSHA and the Contractors State License Board are investigating those and other deaths.

In October, a contractor engaged by Cal-Fire was found guilty of insurance fraud charges stemming from the death of a bulldozer operator hired during the 2016 Soberanes fire in Big Sur. The verdict of a Monterey County Superior Court judge found Ian Nathaniel Czirban, a 35- year-old Coarsegold contractor, guilty of payroll tax evasion, submitting false documents to Cal Fire and failing to carry workers’ compensation insurance.

Czirban was the focus of a sevencount criminal case resulting from the July 2016 death of Robert Reagan III, the bulldozer operator he hired to work at the wildfire that burned 132,000 acres and destroyed 57 homes. Other charges included failing to file payroll tax returns, failing to withhold payroll taxes and failing to secure workers’ compensation insurance.

Cirzban’s attorney put forward a defense that Reagan was an independent contractor, which the judge rejected. He is scheduled for sentencing on Dec. 13 and faces a maximum prison sentence of four years and eight months, and must pay restitution to Reagan’s heirs, the District Attorney said.

As part of the investigation of the criminal case, investigators from the Monterey D. A’s. office in a news release said that “Czirban, a licensed contractor, had a history of operating his business, Czirban Concrete Construction, without workers’ compensation insurance.”

Investigators said evidence also showed that Czirban falsely claimed to have worker’s compensation insurance when he signed a contract with Cal Fire in May 2014, calling for him to provide bulldozers and qualified operators for work at assigned wildfires.

The Contractors State License Board was well acquainted with Czirban and had suspended his license eight times in four years over violations, many of them tied to workers’ comp problems. They revoked his license this year.

Cal/OSHA on the Case
Cal/OSHA’s investigations into the Monterey County mega-fire point to a lack of training on the part of private contractors pulled in to work the state’s blazes, according to an expert on heavy equipment and construction site injuries. They issued five citations to Czirban Concrete Construction and $20,000 in fines as a result of their investigation.

Cal Fire disputes the idea that its private contract workers aren’t well trained on safety issues. The agency requires the people it hires to operate heavy equipment to annually take a course focusing on fire-line safety, according to Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton.

So far, there is no agency explanation about the failure to pick up the telltale workers’ comp fraud—a sure indicator the “contractor” is working the shady side of the street.