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49 Fire investigator: “We understand frustration”

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The chief investigator on the nine-month-long 49 Fire investigation says his Cal Fire team is cognizant of the level of frustration in the community over the unsolved case. “We totally understand the angst that some members of the public feel,” Battalion Chief Bill Mendonca said Friday. Mendonca and Cal Fire have consistently said there is nothing new to report since issuing a statement in mid-October that the Aug. 30 fire – the biggest in terms of property damage in Auburn history – was deliberately set. Last week, a group of people who lost their homes in the 49 Fire met with an Auburn private detective agency to express their frustration over the pace of the investigation and conclusions reached so far. The fire caused $40 million in damage, destroyed 63 homes and consumed 350 acres. “Things are happening behind the scenes but no new information is being released,” Mendonca said. Mendonca did comment on a photo taken soon after the fire broke out that showed a smoking Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power pole burning. The meeting of fire victims Wednesday was reported to have partly focused on the possibility of a class-action lawsuit and participants said afterward that PG&E was a possible subject. The pole photo has been held out as possible proof of a cause but PG&E has consistently denied any connection to the fire due to faulty equipment. The corporation points to the Cal Fire determination that the blaze was arson. Mendonca said the photo taken by a passerby at Highway 49 and Rock Creek Road is inconclusive because of flames shown on the pole and the presence of smoke from another area – believed to be the second fire started by one or more arsonists. “Poles don’t burn downward,” he said. Auburn private investigator Don Treco of the Gumshoe Detective Agency said he is seeking information, photos and video to assist with the private investigation. The Gumshoe investigation is being financially backed by some 49 Fire victims. Treco and Tom Dwelle, a 49 Fire property owner who said he won’t be part of a lawsuit, said the meeting showed a high level of frustration over the Cal Fire investigation. Mendonca said the department has felt the pressures from the community to release more information but in a criminal investigation there would be no purpose in giving out “bits and pieces that would create more questions.” “There’s nothing I can say to make people feel better,” Mendonca said.