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Residents still heated over 49 Fire investigation

Forum discusses response times, weed abatement issues
By: Lien Hoang Special to the Auburn Journal
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Public tempers have far from cooled in the 11 months since the 49 Fire. At a sometimes tear-jerking, sometimes confrontational forum Wednesday night, Auburn residents took officers and officials to task for what they deemed a bungled rescue and recovery. “I do not want to come here to hear how great things were handled,” Connie Kirchner said after panelists described their speedy response to the fire, and after Assemblyman Ted Gaines said he was “impressed” by their coordination. “When 63 homes are burned, things are not handled wonderfully.” Gaines called together the forum at the Placer County Board of Supervisors Chambers to analyze the 49 Fire’s legacy near its first anniversary. With few allusions to the fire’s origin, and some praise for its extermination, the 50 or so audience members focused on fire-prevention legislation — and on mistakes made by the county and its partners. Kirchner, who lost her house on Creekside Place, called herself an early eyewitness to the Aug. 30 fire. It burned for 40 minutes before emergency personnel responded, she said, challenging panelist Brad Harris. The local unit chief for CalFire said firetrucks arrived to the blaze six minutes after they were called at 2:22 p.m. Others in the crowd bemoaned a similar lag in evacuating residents and enlisting air support. In one of many audience interjections, Joe Castelli explained to Kirchner, “Honey, they were saving businesses, they weren’t saving our neighborhood.” Castelli complained that firefighters drove by that day, swearing at him and skipping over the flames on Dry Creek Road in favor of wealthy homes and offices. Of saving some buildings and not others, Harris said, “It’s not a decision we make lightly.” Some residents took at least one decision into their own hands: to mitigate fire risk, Creekside Place neighbors raised $2,400 for Bushwackers, Inc. to clear 42 acres of dead grass and plants this month. But still more residents are hoping for the passage of a hazardous vegetation ordinance, which would give property owners 30 days to eliminate fire-friendly overgrowth. “You got to respect property rights while looking out for the interest of neighbors,” Gaines said of the measure, overseen by Placer County supervisors. The assemblyman has sponsored legislation in his own domain, as well, a bill that would reimburse the county $200,000 to lighten the $1.3 million burden required to fight the 49 Fire. That’s $1.3 million the county would have happily sought in litigation from PG&E if it had touched off the fire, Harris said. But despite a PG&E pole burning nearby on Aug. 30, he said the company had no involvement in the conflagration. “I’m willing to address the gorilla in the room,” Harris said. “These rumors about PG&E are absolutely false.” He was less candid about what police have determined was the actual cause — arson — saying they have studied burn indicators and questioned persons of interest. “We haven’t given up on finding out who the arsonist is,” he said. Though few at the forum asked about the case, homeowners evicted by the fire have hired Auburn’s Gumshoe Detective Agency to get to the root of the crime privately. As the investigation continues, some residents have yet to return home and weeds still grow unabated. That’s all the more reason to take action, according to Fran Kehoe, who helped raise the money for Bushwackers. The teary-eyed Kehoe told the crowd, “It’s amazing what you can do when you come together.”