Another View: 49 Fire anniversary stirs many memories

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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While being compact and informative, Gus Thomson’s piece in Tuesday’s Journal also rang a chord somewhere in the depths of my subconscious, which is tough to do considering some of those levels match the Marianas Trench. Yes, I also recall that Highway 49 Fire of Aug. 30, 2009, a morning which began with a silence so stark it drowned out the normal clang inside the mind. At least it did until that North Wind started making piercing noises of its own. But unlike those who once dwelled in the 62 homes incinerated that day, or the many who fled as the flames closed in on the Parkway Drive environs, I didn’t lose anything. Well, I didn’t until later when rumors of arson began flaming, an event which caused me to lose my temper. You see, my wife Millie and I were in that area very shortly before the fire began, and we saw something which later made us suspicious. Trying to report these suspicions days later proved frustrating. We were off to a gym that morning, travelling along a nearly deserted Highway 49 when we took note of the eerie weather. We both remarked how much it reminded us of the 49er Fire which flared up in September 1988, shortly after we moved here from Orange County. As we were driving, we saw a man on a bike suddenly emerge out of the brush, but as soon as he noticed us, he scurried back into the tall weeds. Millie is an ex-Costa Mesa PD so she’s suspicious of just about everything, but even I thought it odd. After all, consider a man on a regular bike off the road, and then acting as if he did not wish to be seen. Because my mind is a colander, that memory faded from the conscious, only to get resurrected a short time later when the word “arson” was put into play. More than a few of us at the time were of the belief that a power pole in the area was the true cause of the blaze. That belief became even stronger when some particularly damning photos emerged. Those pictures have been investigated by experts, most of whom point out the charring patterns were from the ground up, rather than the reverse. On the other hand, if a hot wire fell to the ground at the base of the pole, then we’re back to square one, aren’t we? Eventually the company responsible for the poles and the pole itself was officially ruled out as the cause of the blaze by Cal Fire. In the meantime, I always wondered whether that 30ish, dark-haired bicyclist with what appeared to be a U.S. Army jacket had anything to do with causing the tragic events. Being the good citizen I am — and always looking to ingratiate myself with my public safety sources — I (tardily) contacted the Placer County Sheriff’s Office. Whomever at the front desk answered my phone call was — as usual — polite, punctual and helpful, but that ended once the call got transferred inside. There I was, in a businesslike fashion, told that “CDF (Cal Fire) was handling that investigation.” So I quickly lobbed a call to the fire agency and was told, in so many words, that “the Sheriff’s Department was handling that investigation” and I really needed to contact them. That’s when I dropped the subject. But now that the Placer County Grand Jury has — basically — exonerated PG&E and puts the cause as arson, I begin wondering all over again. While the Grand Jury has plenty on its collective plate, perhaps it might find some time to investigate how various taxpayer-supported agencies handle calls from the public, especially ones involving safety. Also, Grand Jury members may or may not know that a lot of people — especially upwind of the fire — could well have been needlessly evacuated that day, an event which proved to be a boon to local hotel operators, but certainly didn’t help the expenses of those who had to spend a few days locked out of their homes. I know that hindsight is 20-20 and that we always need to err on the side of caution, but more than one source later told me a Sheriff’s dispatcher had trouble with the sector map and wound up activating the wrong reverse-911 alarm. On the other hand, you know how rumors are, which is one reason we have a Grand Jury. And, there’s one more related item I’d like the Grand Jury take a peek at. Would you please determine whether those hot wires along that portion of Highway 49 were supposed to have been undergrounded years ago? While I don’t recall the exact particulars, I do remember something about PG&E getting strong-armed (an historic event in itself) into handing over a large pile of cash to the Placer County government, funds which it seems to me were earmarked for undergrounding utility lines along that major thoroughfare. Harriet White was the local supervisor in the ’90s at the time, although I toss that in not as an accusation, but more as an effort to establish a timeline. It also occurs to me that during some Meddlers meetings, former supervisor Ron Lichau would — in passing — wonder aloud where that money went. Perhaps the power poles would never have come into question today if they had gone underground. Think about it. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs on Sundays. Reach him at