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Questions still burning two years after 49 Fire

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Aug. 30, 2009. It’s a date indelibly etched in the psyches and the lives of hundreds of North Auburn residents who fled the flames and lived to tell their own stories about the destruction of that afternoon’s 49 Fire. On Sunday, about 15 of them gathered at North Park in the Parkway Drive subdivision, where dozens of homes razed in the fire have since been rebuilt. As they talked and ate a potluck picnic in the shade, the memories were still vivid, the stories still fresh and, for some, the answers to questions about the blaze still frustratingly elusive. Connie Kirchner lost her home in the fire and has since rebuilt. Her home was one of 62 destroyed during a catastrophe that caused $40 million in property damage. Kirchner, who was without a permanent home for 13 months, said she continues to question Cal Fire’s version of how the 49 Fire was handled and the results of the ensuing investigation. Cal Fire established arson as the cause but no arrest has been made in the case. The Placer County grand jury recently issued a report that defends Cal Fire’s actions and describes the 49 Fire as “The Perfect Storm” because of a convergence of wind speeds, temperature and high vegetation conditions that late-summer day. Cal Fire Unit Chief Brad Harris said last week that he wasn't surprised by the grand jury findings, which back his department's stance that the 49 Fire response was appropriate and the determination on its origin and cause was correct. But Kirchner said the she feels the grand jury shouldn’t have relied on Cal Fire for its information and should have sought more information from outside agencies. “They’re the only ones I think the grand jury listened to,” Kirchner said. “It’s very hard to believe when they said they did a good job.” After two years, the 49 Fire is still a painful reality. “People are going on with their lives but there has been a lot of mental and physical sickness,” Kirchner said. “No one is asking anymore how it has affected families.” Genetta Ison, another neighborhood resident who lost her home and barely escaped the flames, said she still can’t believe the investigation determined the cause was arson. The initial point of ignition was determined to be just off Highway 49 in an area visible from the busy roadway. A second fire was lighted minutes later and the two joined together to create a super fire, Cal Fire investigators announced in fall 2009. “It was a Sunday afternoon and there were a lot of people on the road,” Ison said. “If it was (arson), why did nobody see it?” Jack Kenny, who was able to fire off a few frames of the approaching fire on his camera before leaving his Creekside Place home of 25 years, said he still is amazed that the blaze was not stopped before it hit his neighborhood. Ten homes around him were burned to the ground. “I didn’t think it was going to come up,” Kenny said. “We’ve had four or five fires in the past but they’ve been wiped out before they moved in.” Kenny does consider the “perfect storm” explanation as a viable reason for the 49 Fire’s destructive move into his cul-de-sac. “Everything was perfect – that was the problem,” Kenny said. “The wind, the humidity. The fire beat them here.” Over the past two dry seasons since the fire, Parkway Drive-area residents have mobilized to raise funds to clear brush and apply herbicides to provide a fire-break. Their efforts have been augmented this year by new rules which require the owner of a large, vacant field on the west side of the neighborhood to clear away dangerous fire fuels near homes. Barbara Koski, who also lost her house and has since rebuilt, said that she’s thankful she’s alive and nobody was killed in the 49 Fire. But, even so, the possessions and keepsakes she lost were important to her. Koski said she too has many questions about the fire that remain unanswered. “But I don’t think we’ll ever have the answers,” Koski said. “I see different versions of the same story. Should we sit around and worry about the answers? I think we have to move on.”