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49 Fire investigation remains ‘hot’

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Cal Fire Unit Chief Brad Harris answered questions about the 49 Fire and subsequent response during an interview with the Auburn Journal Wednesday. No one has been arrested for the Aug. 30, 2009, arson-caused blaze that destroyed 64 homes and 10 businesses – Deric Rothe, editor/general manager. AJ: Is Cal Fire proud of its response to the 49 Fire? Chief Brad Harris: Absolutely. We feel that we provided a quality response to the incident given the circumstances that they had in front of them at the time. We need to remember that the fire occurred on a hot, windy day. Fire spread quickly and the arsonist set two fires. As they were combating the first fire, the arsonist, half an hour later approximately, set his second fire and the second fire joined with the first one very quickly creating a very overwhelming situation, which the people in the field were able to react to. We empathize with the people who lost their homes. We don’t like to have homes lost on fires but the people who responded to the incident, the command officers in charge, did a very good job with the situation they had in front of them. AJ: Who made the decision that day to let some homes and areas burn and not others? Harris: It’s not a decision of letting homes burn. The decision is where you can logically stop the fire. The incident commander (Jeff Brand) made the decision that day and that was their best bet, once the second fire started and we can’t underestimate the effect that second fire had. Once the second fire was initiated and joined with the first, he began to change his initial plans of where he wanted to stop the fire and find an area where he could more readily cease the spread of the fire. If he didn’t do that, the potential for this fire was over 9,000 acres when we ran it through a computer simulation. AJ: What do you say to residents who called 911, waited up to 40 minutes for a response evacuated and then found their home and possession burn? Harris: We did our best with the resources we had available to protect every home we could possibly protect. We just, the fire became overwhelming at certain given points during it, and it overwhelmed the resources we could get there in a timely manner. AJ: If there was enough time for all residents to evacuate the area, why couldn’t firefighters get in to the neighborhood in time to save homes? Harris: Again, availability of resources. When a fire engine is dispatched it takes a certain amount of time for the apparatus to get there. They’re not all going to get there at once. So as the apparatus start to filter into the area, the incident commander then chooses where the best point is at that time to deploy that piece of apparatus. Again, we’re not just responding fire engines to the scene we’re also responding bulldozers, hand crews and various aircraft. AJ: What was your biggest disappointment about the day? Harris: My biggest disappointment was to see an entire neighborhood leveled by the fire even though we gave our best effort. I can empathize with the property owners who lost everything. The person who started this fire, if he had been a burglar, may have affected one, maybe two properties. But by starting two fires that generated the amount of damage that it did, he or she successfully managed to take everything that those people in those 64 homes owned away from them. No single burglar in this community could have achieved what that person did. AJ: What are you most proud of in the 49 Fire that day? Harris: That the response was well-coordinated. That the command structure in the fire worked. That the emergency response systems that Placer County enjoys worked as it was designed. That the disaster relief people came together quickly, establishing a relief center that helped these people in a very, very short time frame given the amount of damage that was concerned and the fact that unlike some of our Southern California communities, this was really the first time this community had something of this magnitude. In the scale of wildland fires, it was relatively small – 350 acres more or less. But the devastation was very widespread and very severe. And no deaths. That is the biggest thing right there. AJ: How is the arson investigation going? Harris: We are still following every lead we get and are still actively involved in the interviewing process. Again, it’s a matter of semantics. The investigation is over. We know what caused the fire. It was arson. We’re now actively searching for the suspect so we can develop a case that’s sufficient enough to have a successful prosecution. AJ: Do you have a suspect? Have they been brought in for questioning? Harris. Again, I can’t comment at this time because it’s part of the active investigation. AJ: Is the public in danger from this particular arsonist? Why or why not? Harris: The public is always in danger from arsonists. Whether it’s this particular arsonist or the arsonists we have in the community on a regular basis. We have a large number of human-caused fires throughout the state of California and Auburn is not exempt from that. AJ: What about a data base to keep track of arsonists? Is there one and if not would you like to see one? Harris: We used to have a data base, the Arson Investigating Reporting System. Funding ran out for it a number of years ago and it hasn’t been renewed as of yet and nobody has taken up the cost of bringing back another data base to track fire causes and arson-related incidents. Yes, I would love to see a data base of that type reinstituted. I’m trying to remember back. It’s been a few years, but I believe the data base included the names and locations of convicted arsonists. But it was available only to the fire investigation, law-enforcement community. AJ: What accelerant was used to start the fire? Harris: Again, I can’t get into the exact cause of the fire. AJ: Businesses and the community raised money for a disaster relief fund after the fire. Would you like to see them raise money for a reward fund? Harris: We always accept the public’s assistance in helping us increase the award that would bring this person to justice. This person in particular perpetuated a heinous crime. AJ: How is Cal Fire publicizing that there is a $10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of an arsonist? Harris: We’re publicizing it through our 800 number (1-800-468-4408). We are getting a response. Not as large a response as we did when we initially made the reward offer but we’re accepting and will continue to accept tips on this fire so we can bring this person to justice. AJ: Would you characterize the investigation trail as hot or cold? Harris: I would characterize it still as hot. We’re still getting credible information and we’re following up every lead we get. AJ: What is Cal Fire’s arson conviction rate? Harris: Where I came from, our conviction rate was in the 90 percentile. The very nature of arson lends itself to doing a great deal of investigation and we have to do a great deal of fact finding trying to tie all the elements of the crime together, which makes the prosecution of arson a lot more successful for the DAs when we get the cases to them. AJ: Have you asked other law enforcement agencies for help? Harris: Absolutely. We’re working closely with Placer County sheriff’s investigators. AJ: Does Cal Fire have the manpower or funding to conduct the investigation into the 49 Fire in this economy? Harris: Yes. We have the ability due to the size and experience of the organization to draw personnel from around the state of California to put on the case. We did in the very early stages and had investigator teams doing the origin and cause of the fire in terms of how it did start. And any assistance on the follow-up investigation, all we have to do is ask and we’ll get whatever resources we need. AJ: PG&E was quickly ruled out as the cause of the fire, yet they actively invested in the investigation. What do you say to residents who say that is a conflict of interest? Harris: First of all, they didn’t actively aid in the investigation. They provided information that we demanded. They provided hardware we demanded. It comes after a number of years of working with the utilities, where we have received evidence and pieces of information from the utilities via subpoena. They understand they can give us these items or we’ll get a court order. But as far as them physically helping us with the investigation, that’s a false assumption. AJ: Was Assemblyman Ted Gaines’ town hall meeting helpful? Harris: It was a good forum for some of the people who still have concerns about the fire to voice their concerns. And it gave us an opportunity to talk to some of the people that were concerned about the response to give them a different perspective on it. We had a follow-up meeting with some of the residents there to talk about some of the things that went on. Again it comes back to perception. We’re trying to come to a common conception of what went on. They had some very legitimate concerns in their mind and it’s up to us as a responsible government agency to answer them to the best of our ability. AJ: What has Cal Fire learned from the 49 Fire? Harris: What I’ve learned is that it’s a very close-knit community in Auburn. The people in this community came together very quickly to help the victims of it. It’s something this community can be very proud of. Reporter Gus Thomson and News Editor Jenifer Gee contributed to this report.