Widow of Bulldozer Operator Killed in Soberanes Fire Struggles to Get By

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The Soberanes Fire burns near Big Sur on the night of July 23, 2016. (Cal Fire via Twitter)

Morgan Kemple heard a knock on her door at 4:30 in the morning on July 27, 2016. She was concerned that her daughters, ages 2 and 5, would wake up. She went to the door and saw several Cal Fire officials outside. They asked to come in.

Days earlier her husband, 35-year-old Robert Reagan, pulled out of the driveway from their home in Friant, Fresno County, and headed off to help battle a massive blaze burning in Monterey County, which would become the costliest fire in U.S. history.

Widow of Bulldozer Operator Killed in Soberanes Fire Struggles to Get By

Widow of Bulldozer Operator Killed in Soberanes Fire Struggles to Get By

"They told me there was an accident and that Robert wasn't OK," Kemple said in an interview with KQED. "I immediately went to, 'Let's go, I'll get the kids right now.' They said, 'No, he's dead.' "

Reagan was working as a bulldozer driver for a private company that was contracted to help battle what became known as the Soberanes Fire. During massive fires, the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire rely heavily on hundreds of private contractors to supply heavy equipment and the people to operate them.

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The bulldozer Reagan was driving tipped over on a steep embankment in the middle of the night and pinned him to the ground.

In the moments after learning of her husband's death, Kemple was given few details about the accident.

"They told me that the bulldozer had rolled. They said they didn't have all the details," Kemple said. "It was probably midday when I learned that he was trapped underneath the dozer."

Family Lost a Husband, Father and Breadwinner

The tragedy came just over 12 years after Kemple and Reagan met. She remembers the very night it happened at a bar with her friends.

"I walked up and introduced myself, and the next thing I know he bought me a drink and he was singing karaoke to me and we were dancing and having a good time. And we were inseparable from that point on," Kemple said.

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)

He was working as a truck driver when he met Kemple. Later, she would help him run a trucking company that he owned.

About 10 years ago one of Reagan's friends convinced him to help work a wildfire, Kemple said. Every season after that, he would take jobs operating heavy equipment like bulldozers and water trucks, traveling to different parts of the state each time.

When he was in the field, the couple would text if he had good cellphone reception so she knew he was OK. But large wildfires often take place in remote areas and with no connections, so she would have to wait to be in touch.

Accident Prompts Several Probes

The incident marked the first bulldozer operator fatality in a California wildfire in nearly nine years. State fire officials say it was the first time a private "vendor" was killed in a Cal Fire incident.

Since the accident, three state agencies opened investigations into the incident and the company that hired Reagan, Czirban Concrete Construction.

Cal Fire's preliminary review found that Reagan was not wearing a seat belt.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) fined Czirban and Cal Fire and confirmed that the concrete construction company did not have workers' compensation coverage.

That oversight and other state violations prompted the Contractors State License Board to try to bar Czirban from working in California again and it led to an investigation by prosecutors in Monterey County.

Morgan Kemple and Robert Reagan with their two daughters. Reagan was killed on July 26, 2016 when his bulldozer toppled down a hill and pinned him underneath. This photo was posted to a GoFundMe page on behalf of Morgan Kemple.
Morgan Kemple and Robert Reagan with their two daughters. (Courtesy of Morgan Kemple)

On Friday, the Monterey County District Attorney's Office filed seven criminal charges against Czirban.

The fact that Reagan's employer did not have workers' compensation insurance has made it tough for Kemple and her two daughters to collect money from his death. The family has applied for Social Security survivors' benefits.

But what's helped the most has been an online fundraising effort set up in the days after Reagan died. Its initial goal was to raise $16,000 but it's collected over $137,000.

Kemple says she uses the money to pay bills, to buy the dresses her daughters wore at Reagan's service and for attorney fees.

She and her two kids have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Cal Fire, which is not commenting on the case.

A few of the agency's officials who were in touch with her initially after Reagan's death stopped communicating with her after the suit was filed.

Kemple says private contractors like her late husband who handle large equipment in dangerous situations should have more protection in the future.

"There should be something set in place. You never know what's going to happen. They weren't supervising their workman's comp policies. There was no safeguards," she said.

"He was devoted to me and these kids. Everything he did was for us."