49 Fire investigator discusses search for cause

Reader photos help
By: Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer
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As investigators work to discover the cause of the 49 Fire, Journal readers are assisting. On Friday, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Bill Mendonca, who is the lead investigator for the 49 Fire, met with Journal staff to talk about the investigation’s status and how reader-submitted photos and witness statements help. To determine the cause of the fire, Mendonca listed several potential causes investigators consider. Those causes include vehicle, lightening, railroad, equipment, smoke, electrical, arson and children with matches. “Each has to be either accounted for or ruled out,” Mendonca said. “Either proven as a possible cause of the fire, the cause of the fire or disproven as the cause of the fire.” Mendonca said investigators are continuing to put witness statements in order. They’ve also seized Pacific Gas & Electric equipment as part of the investigation. However, Mendonca said the Cal Fire and PG&E work closely together. He said the company wants to prevent fire just as much as firefighters. “PG&E is taking a lot of heat,” Mendonca said. While suppression costs for the 49 Fire are estimated so far at about $1.2 million, Mendonca said it could be some time before the cost of damage is known. Mendonca looked at a picture provided by Auburn resident Art Fuller that shows flames climbing up a PG&E power pole. Fuller took the photo across the street from the power pole after the 49 Fire began. The photo shows the area of the origin of the fire, which is at the intersection of Highway 49 and Rock Creek Road, Mendonca said. “It’s right in the wedge,” Mendonca said. It was an “old” photo in terms of the fire’s progress, Mendonca estimated. “(The fire) was probably all the way to Dry Creek by the time this photo was taken,” Mendonca sad. He said the photo shows that the power pole’s fuses were intact when the fire occurred but other mechanical pieces of the pole have no yet been ruled out. “The pictures are quite telling but there are other factors on the pole that have to be considered,” Mendonca said. However, he added, “It’s irresponsible to just look at the pole and disregard any other cause.” Mendonca explained that when a fire starts, typically there is a “V” pattern that spreads laterally and forward from the origin. He said when the fire first broke out, he rushed to the intersection to protect the area surrounding the origin of the fire. Mendonca said there is no timeline as to when the investigation will be complete. He said investigators meet for daily briefings. They will determine when it is appropriate to release information. “It’s a matter of putting the pieces together so we get the right order,” Mendonca said. Mendonca added that fire investigation has become a scientific process more than ever. “With the amount of money to put a fire out and the amount of potential damage, it’s critical the investigation is done right,” Mendonca said. Jenifer Gee can be reached at