Firm That Employed Dozer Operator Killed in Carr Fire Lacked Required Insurance

The company that hired a bulldozer operator killed during the massive Carr Fire in July does not have a workers' compensation policy on file with Cal Fire -- despite an agency requirement that it show proof its employees were covered.

Donald Ray Smith, 81, from the El Dorado County community of Pollock Pines, died on July 26.

He is the third private contractor to be killed on the job in the last two years helping state and federal firefighters battle a large wildfire in California.

The companies that hired the two other deceased workers also lacked workers' compensation policies, which typically provide a wide range of benefits for workers hurt, disabled or killed on the job.

"These three men put their lives on the line for Californians," said Veena Dubal, an associate professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. "It's extremely upsetting."

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Smith was working for Pollock Pines-based Robert Dominikus General Engineering, one of the scores of small contractors Cal Fire hires for the use of heavy equipment like bulldozers and water tenders.

Cal Fire regulations require the contractors to supply a current workers' compensation policy with the state firefighting agency.

But the company's contract with Cal Fire, obtained through a California Public Records Act request, does not include such coverage.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said a check of Dominikus Engineering's vendor file did not turn up any workers’ compensation insurance documents.

Contractors State License Board records show the firm told the state earlier this year it was exempt from carrying workers' compensation insurance because it had no employees.

But McLean, in an email, said that Smith was an employee of the company.

Robert Dominikus declined to comment.

The California Labor Commissioner's office has launched an investigation into the company, said Frank Polizzi, a spokesman for the state's Department of Industrial Relations.

Last year, the same agency fined Red Bluff-based Tehama Transport, the company that hired Garrett Paiz, 38, who was killed during last October's North Bay fires when the water tender he was driving crashed in Napa County.

The commissioner's office ordered the firm to stop working after it determined the company failed to carry workers' comp insurance. A lawyer for Tehama Transport has said the state's requirements meant it was quitting the firefighting business.

State regulators also penalized Czirban Concrete Construction, the company that hired Robert Reagan, 35, killed in July 2016 during the Soberanes Fire in Big Sur.

Disclosures surrounding workers' comp problems associated with Czirban led Monterey County prosecutors to file charges against the company's owner.

Another contract employee injured while fighting the Soberanes Fire, water tender driver John Tiersma, also worked for a firm that failed to provide workers' comp.

The fact that the firms that employed Smith, Paiz, Reagan and Tiersma did not have workers' compensation means Cal Fire needs to do a better job of vetting its vendors, said Dubal.

"This seems like a very easy thing to do, to make sure that if they're putting people's lives in danger, that those folks have some kind of protection," Dubal said.

She said the fact Cal Fire found no documentation of workers' compensation insurance in Dominikus Engineering's file is telling.

"It seems like they're not taking this supposed requirement seriously," Dubal said.

Cal Fire says it expects heavy equipment vendors to understand all of the policies that apply to their contracts and that it takes violations of those rules seriously.

"We will continue to ensure that every vendor that enters into an emergency equipment rental agreement clearly reads and understands the terms and conditions established in the agreement," McLean said in an emailed statement.

"When a vendor is ordered to respond to an incident their paperwork will be reviewed within a few days of the incident to again validate that they have the appropriate documentation," McLean said.

The state has protected itself from financial consequences in connection with the contractor deaths. That should change, said Dubal. Not only should Cal Fire do a better job of checking its vendor files, the state should consider providing the workers' comp coverage, she said.

"Three men died without protections for their families. That's three men too many," Dubal said. "We owe them and their families something much more."

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