The owner of a company that hired Robert Reagan, the bulldozer operator killed in the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history, pleaded not guilty to seven criminal counts in Monterey County Superior Court on Thursday.
Prosecutors have charged Ian Czirban with two counts of insurance fraud, two counts of filing a forged document, tax evasion, failure to collect taxes and failure to provide workers’ compensation insurance.
All but one of the charges are felonies.
During the court hearing Czirban agreed not to engage in contracting jobs as his criminal case moves forward, according to Monterey County Managing Deputy District Attorney Ed Hazel. Czirban currently owns Czirban Concrete Construction, an agency bulldozer contractor in the Madera County town of Coarsegold.
Czirban appeared with his attorney, Daniel Olmos, a Palo Alto-based lawyer specializing in financial fraud. Olmos declined to comment on the case.
Czirban is scheduled to return to court on June 28 to set his preliminary hearing.
The arraignment came two months after prosecutors charged Czirban, who recruited Reagan in the early days of the Soberanes Fire near Big Sur last July.
Reagan’s death prompted investigations by Cal Fire, state workplace regulators and the state agency that keeps tabs on California’s construction industry. The incident led to a wrongful death lawsuit against the state. And, it’s made life tough for the family Reagan left behind.
It also brought attention to vulnerabilities faced by hundreds of private contractors that help battle California’s wildfires year after year.
Cal Fire Probe Details Death of Dozer Driver in Big Sur Blaze
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)
By Ted Goldberg August 5, 2016
A preliminary report from Cal Fire investigators says that a bulldozer driver killed while working on the massive fire near Big Sur was ejected from his machine as it tipped over on a steep embankment, possibly because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
The Cal Fire “green sheet” says the operator — earlier identified as Robert Reagan, 35, of the Fresno County town of Friant — died nearly instantly after being pinned to the ground as the bulldozer turned over.
The report on the incident, which Cal Fire emphasizes is still under investigation, says Reagan may not have been wearing the bulldozer’s lap-style seat belt and that it’s likely the left door of the machine’s cab was open.
Reagan, who was working for Madera County-based Czirban Concrete Construction, a Cal Fire contractor, had been assigned to bulldoze a fire line on the northwestern edge of the Soberanes Fire. The area where Reagan was working is characterized by steep ridges, deep canyons and is accessible only by a network of narrow dirt roads.
After being briefed by another dozer operator and conferring with firefighters, he began maneuvering his machine toward the proposed line shortly before 11 p.m. on July 26.
Reagan’s path was blocked by a fire engine parked on a dirt road, so he guided his dozer onto a roadway that ran parallel to and above the first one. His new path required him to drive down a steep embankment to get back to the lower road and reach his assignment. Although he had identified a spot he felt would be safe, the report said, he instead steered his machine onto the lip of an 81 percent slope and started down.
A firefighter stationed at the engine on the lower road told investigators he saw Reagan’s dozer slide down the slope. The bulldozer’s blade struck the edge of the embankment, he said, causing the machine to roll onto its left side. The dozer eventually came into contact with the fire engine’s rear bumper.
Reagan “was ejected from the cab and was pinned beneath the left sweep,” the report states. Sweeps are sets of heavy bars meant to protect the operator’s cab.
A paramedic who was nearby at the time pronounced Reagan dead.
The preliminary report on Reagan’s death is not final. Cal Fire emphasizes that it was published in a short time frame and is subject to changes stemming from further investigation.
Cal Fire has pulled Reagan’s employer from its rotation of as-needed contractors after learning that it may not have been providing workers’ compensation insurance to its workers.
His death is believed to be the first of a bulldozer operator working a wildfire in California in nearly nine years. That last fatality, on Oct. 8, 2007, occurred within a mile or so of Reagan’s accident.
Matthew Will, a Cal Fire heavy fire equipment operator, died of a head injury suffered when his bulldozer slipped off the side of a hill and rolled over at least twice. That incident, during a blaze dubbed the Colorado Fire, led to a lawsuit against the bulldozer manufacturer, Caterpillar Inc. Will’s family alleged the vehicle was defectively and negligently designed. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $6.7 million in damages.
Reagan’s employer, Czirban Concrete Construction, is one of hundreds of firms Cal Fire contracts with to provide bulldozers, water tenders and other equipment and services the agency needs each year.
The Contractors State License Board, which has suspended Czirban’s license eight times in the last four years, launched a new investigation into the company this week after learning of Reagan’s apparent employment there.
The firm has told the board that it had no employees and therefore did not need to provide worker’s compensation, an agency spokesman said.
Cal Fire’s contract with Czirban includes an insurance policy with the State Compensation Insurance Fund that expired in January 2015.
Cal Fire says it relies on its vendors to make sure their paperwork is up to date. If the agency learns that one of its as-needed contractors is not providing workers’ comp, it can cancel its contract, an agency official said.
“The obligation remains with the contractor to comply with these requirements,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said in an email. “We are currently investigating, and in the meantime, this vendor has been pulled from our rotation.”
Employer of Worker Killed in Soberanes Fire Under Scrutiny
The Soberanes Fire burns near Big Sur on the night of July 23, 2016. (Cal Fire via Twitter)
By Ted Goldberg August 2, 2016
The construction company that employed a bulldozer operator killed last week in the massive Soberanes wildfire in Monterey County has had its license suspended eight times by state regulators in the last four years.
Robert Reagan, the 35-year-old Friant man who was working the fire when the bulldozer he was operating rolled over, was employed by Czirban Concrete Construction, said Julia Bernstein, a spokeswoman for California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA,) which is investigating his death.
The construction company, which is based in Coarsegold (Madera County), recently told the Contractors State License Board (CSLB) it had no employees and therefore did not need to provide worker’s compensation, board spokesman Rick Lopes said. ‘They’ve been going without a workers’ comp policy, telling us they’ve got no employees.’Rick Lopes, Contractors State License Board spokesman
Multiple calls for comment to Ian Czirban, the company’s owner, have yet to be returned.
Word of Reagan’s death and employment has prompted the license board to open a new investigation into the firm.
“They are on our radar now,” Lopes said in an interview. “They’ve been going without a workers’ comp policy, telling us they’ve got no employees.”
The license board learned about Reagan’s employment at Czirban from KQED, which asked questions about the company’s history after learning Cal/OSHA had launched its probe.
It’s Cal/OSHA’s first investigation into an incident related to Czirban, but not the license board’s first probe. The company has gotten into trouble repeatedly over how much workers’ comp it offers its workers and its payments to its employees and suppliers.
In July 2012, CSLB investigators found that a crew employed by the company was not covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Czirban was then cited and fined $3,500.
The company did not pay that fine right away, so its contractors license was suspended. The firm agreed to a payment plan with the agency to pay the fine — but it failed to make a payment and its license was suspended again.
The company’s license was then suspended several other times because its subcontractors and material suppliers were not paid, Lopes said.
“The fact is whenever they’ve gotten into a situation where they’ve had to pay some sort of fines or pay back a bond, they’ve really dragged their feet and it’s forced the contractors board to suspend their license and turn up the heat on them.”
The current investigation could lead the agency to pull Czirban’s license again.
If the company had no workers’ compensation insurance, it could be harder for Reagan’s relatives to collect money because of his death.
Czirban Concrete is one of a number of companies Cal Fire has contracted with on the Soberanes Fire — a practice the agency employs on large fires.
“We have many companies that we contract with throughout the state and they can be utilized in any area,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said. “The only time they are hired is for emergency incidents. We do not use these contracts for day-to-day projects.”
In an email, Cal Fire confirmed its Madera-Mariposa-Merced unit has a “call when needed” vendor contract with Czirban, and that the vendor has responded to 10 fires in the last 10 years, nine of those times with a bulldozer.
Cal Fire also emphasized that it requires vendors to have workers’ compensation insurance, and that vendors must sign an agreement to that effect under penalty of perjury.
Cal Fire’s Serious Accident Investigation Team is looking into the circumstances surrounding Reagan’s death, but few details have been released about it.
Cal Fire says he died sometime between last Tuesday night and the following Wednesday morning.
Reagan was not in the middle of a firefight at the time, according to U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Paula Martinez.
“He was just coming on shift so it wasn’t like he was actively engaged in fire suppression at the time of the accident,” Martinez said, adding that the incident took place in the Palo Colorado Canyon area.
Robert Reagan killed while battling Soberanes Fire
By Mark Evan Smith
Robert Oliver Reagan III, a Friant resident and graduate of Yosemite High School, was identified Thursday as the bulldozer operator who died July 26 while fighting the Soberanes Fire in Big Sur.
Area news station KSBW reported Reagan, 35, was in his bulldozer when it rolled over, causing fatal injuries while he battled the growing 25,000-acre fire in Monterey County as an independent contractor and Cal Fire partner.
“(Firefighting) is an inherently dangerous job with great risk involved,” said Todd Derum, Cal Fire incident commander. “Please keep your heartfelt thoughts and prayers with the family.”
Daniel Reagan described his brother as a caring man who died doing what he believed in.
“He was a very industrious person who loved to be out and actively helping people,” Daniel said. “He would do anything he could to meet the needs of somebody else. He died doing something he was good at, and doing something he believed was helpful for others in need.”
A GoFundMe page was set up by Reagan’s family to raise money for his wife and two daughters. More than $25,000 was raised by Thursday evening.
On social media, dozens of people offered their prayers and words of support.
“Condolences to his family, friends, and firefighters on the loss of this brave man,” Diana Welling said. “Thank you for being a firefighter. Godspeed sir.”
“It’s always so sad to hear about the loss of another classmate,” added Brianna Templeton. “Prayers for his family.”
Daniel thanked the community for its support, and for respecting the privacy of the family as they take time to mourn their loss.
Reagan was a race car driver who finished third in the 2014 Enduro division at the LoanMart Madera Speedway before he moved into dirt-track racing.
Kenny Shepherd, the Speedway’s owner and promoter, said Reagan was intensely competitive while on the track. But once a race was finished, that fierce attitude turned into one of laughter and love.
“He’d be very competitive, but he raced for the right reasons,” Shepherd said. “He was well liked by his friends, he always gave out big smiles, but he was serious as can be behind the wheel. He was a winner on the track, and a great family man off of it.”
Shepherd said calls have been “pouring in” from fellow racers who are planning fundraisers, at the Speedway and elsewhere, to honor Reagan and support his family.