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Grand jury report defends Cal Fire’s 49 Fire actions

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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With the second anniversary of the 49 Fire approaching, Cal Fire’s response to the disastrous North Auburn blaze is being defended by the Placer County grand jury. The Aug. 30, 2009 fire scorched 343 acres, destroyed 62 homes, damaged 18 others, and caused $40 million in property damage. Cal Fire has since designated the windswept conflagration as the work of an arsonist but has yet to solve the crime. Some homeowners who lost nearly all their possessions in a matter of minutes have openly questioned Cal Fire’s response and tactics on the day of the fire and the subsequent investigation. Findings from the grand jury report, titled “The 49 Fire – The Perfect Storm,” included that: - The weather, topographical and vegetation conditions the afternoon of Aug. 30 were “so great that a faster response or additional resources would not have prevented the rapid fire spread and subsequent losses.” - No significant dispatch and response issues were uncovered that would have had a material effect on the outcome of the fire. - The cause of the fire was ruled as arson. The report also considers the cause of the fire and states that “initial speculation that a utility line and power pole was the cause of the fire was ruled out.” Accidental ignition was also ruled out, the report states. Brad Harris, Cal Fire unit chief, said Monday that the grand jury made an extensive investigation into the fire earlier this year. “And they agreed with us that everything that could be done was done and was done appropriately,” Harris said. Harris said he wasn’t surprised with the grand jury’s findings. “I felt from the very beginning that the origin and cause was correct and the response appropriate,” Harris said. “We reacted appropriately to changing conditions.” A leading critic of the Cal Fire investigation, 49 Fire victim Joe Castelli said he doubts the grand jury findings and is suspicious of Cal Fire’s ability to investigate the case objectively. “There are some very strange things here,” Castelli said, adding that the grand jury never talked to him. Castelli said he hired an ex-district attorney’s and sheriff’s investigator and spent $3,000 to uncover possible evidence Cal Fire hadn’t considered – including a witness who said that sparks were spotted coming down from a Pacific Gas & Electric power pole and two others who said they saw fire creeping toward the spot investigators said ignition took place at. “Our problem is we can’t find an attorney to take our case,” Castelli said. “In terms of justice, there is no justice..” Tom Ricky, another resident in the burn area, said that most people who lost homes in the 49 Fire area had “some disappointment” that fire trucks were not dispatched to their neighborhood. Instead, fire trucks surrounded the Colonial Village seniors facility and prevented a chancy evacuation from taking place, he said. “That was the big triumph,” Ricky said. “I would have understood if that was used as an excuse.” The grand jury report states that it asked questions about response times, dispatch errors and communication problems between fire departments responding to the fire. It reviewed media reports, official documents, maps and weather conditions on Aug. 30, 2009. The grand jury said it also cross-referenced differing opinions and information, and triangulated the finding with any information which could be given to the grand jury and reported to the public. Harris said that anything revolving around the still-open criminal investigation cannot be disclosed because it could tip off a suspect. There is no targeted date for a closure on the investigation and the fire investigation remains open, he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to bring these people to justice,” Harris said.