Our View: 49 Fire: Questions smolders six months later

Our View
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It’s been six months since the 49 Fire destroyed 63 homes and businesses. Thousands of residents have been affected by the arson-caused blaze. The fire did an estimated $40 million worth of damage, destroying countless personal possessions, loved pets and lifetimes’ worth of memories. Yet six months later, not a single suspect has been identified. Residents have no reason to be confident that this devious arsonist will not strike again. Cal Fire, the lead investigator in the arson case, has been fairly silent over the past few months. In October, Cal Fire held a press conference where Chief Brad Harris revealed arson as the cause of the 49 Fire. Harris said then that no suspects have been arrested and the investigation is ongoing. Standing behind Harris were county supervisors Jennifer Montgomery and Jim Holmes and Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Brand. They announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist. That was all well and good. But when asked later for information about suspect descriptions, potential getaway vehicles, criminal profiles or any information that would aid the public in helping solve the heinous crime, Cal Fire has declined comment. The rationale has been that any such information might jeopardize the ongoing investigation. Common sense says that after six months, and not a single arrest, the investigation isn’t going so well. It certainly isn’t going quickly. It’s time to release information regarding 911 calls, an analysis of the response and what lessons might have been learned from coordinating the multi-agency attack. The Cal Fire-led emergency response stopped the fire from spreading further under difficult conditions and resulted in zero loss of human life. Our local firefighters deserve praise and admiration for that. Still, questions about the fire linger and the public deserves answers. Last month, Cal Fire’s lead investigator Bill Mendonca said that after more than 1,200 hours put in by eight investigators and “hundreds” of calls to the arson hotline, there was still nothing new to release or report about the 49 Fire. Residents have many unanswered questions from how the fire was fought, to who was called out and deployed when, to which neighborhoods were evacuated and why. City of Auburn officials have stated that the Auburn Fire Department wasn’t even called out — the city firefighters self-deployed. Connie Kirchner, who lost a Creekside Place home in the fire, wrote a letter to the editor published Monday questioning the slow response time. Kirchner and many other residents also question why public records have not been released regarding the initial call time and the deployment of firefighters. Many also question why some homes were simply left to burn while others were protected. Residents, particularly taxpayers who foot the bill for fire-suppression and the subsequent arson investigations, have a right to know what progress, if any, is being made to catch the perpetrator. How is the investigation going? Has anyone seen reward fliers posted seeking information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer? Did detectives conduct a thorough door-to-door investigation in the Auburn Greens neighborhood looking for clues and witnesses? Did Spanish-speaking investigators ask the non-English speaking residents for help? North Auburn residents who lost everything are rightfully concerned about the lack of success by investigators. After all, if there is indeed an arsonist or arsonists among us, might they strike again? Would it be too much to ask for a description, or even a possible profile of the suspect or suspects? Or might that still “jeopardize” the investigation? Pardon us, but since six months have gone by and no one has been identified as a possible perpetrator, the investigation looks pretty jeopardized already. It’s time to open up the public records and ask residents for help in the investigation.