Lingering 49 Fire questions spark private investigation, possible lawsuit

By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Frustrated by what they consider an inconclusive probe, some victims of the 49 Fire are looking for answers outside the Cal Fire investigation. A group of them met Wednesday with an Auburn private investigator and are looking into the possibility of filing a class-action lawsuit. The wind-whipped Aug. 30 fire burned through 350 acres of tinder-dry grassland, a business district and residential neighborhoods in North Auburn. The total loss was $40 million, including 63 homes and two businesses. Don Treco of Auburn’s Gumshoe Detective Agency met with nine fire victims and said Thursday that a number of other victims are cooperating with the private investigation. He clarified Friday that he had not been hired by a law firm but by 49 Fire victims. “The last thing we want to do is try to take advantage of people’s loss and hardship,” Treco said. “We were approached by some of the victims and we’re answering the call.” While declining to give specifics on a law firm involved in the investigation, Treco did say that a class-action lawsuit is possible. Treco also declined to say who the possible target of a suit would be. Treco said victims he’s interviewed are unanimous “about a possible single-source responsible for the fire and they’re not satisfied with the investigation.” Cal Fire concluded in October that the 49 fire was arson and involved two fires deliberately set about a quarter of a mile apart. An arrest or arrests have yet to be made in the case. Tom Dwelle, an Auburn resident and 49 Fire property owner, attended Wednesday’s meeting and said that some people in the room voiced their opinion that the fire was a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. problem. The question of why a PG&E pole was seen smoking from near the top at Rock Creek Road and Highway 49 when no fire was nearby was a point of contention with many at the meeting, he said. But Brian Swanson, PG&E spokesman, referred to the Cal Fire determination in October that the blaze was caused by arson and issued a one-sentence response. “We have no involvement with the fire,” Swanson said. Dwelle owns six acres of land fronting Highway 49 that were burned over in the Aug. 30 blaze. He lost no structures and said he wouldn’t be participating in a class-action lawsuit. “I do not have a dog in this fight,” Dwelle said. Dwelle said he and others at the meeting expressed frustration with the investigation. With people stepping up to tell their personal stories of hardship, it was an emotional session, he said. “Everyone was very frustrated,” Dwelle said. “I’m an aircraft accident investigator and it’s irritating to me. I can see problems when you have a smoking hole and no witnesses. But this one isn’t rocket science.” Dwelle added that he would like to find out what the investigators think. A call to Cal Fire lead investigator Bill Mendonca was not returned Thursday. In January, Mendonca told the Journal that there are still no answers to who or what sparked the blaze. In early September, before the arson determination was made public, Mendonca examined the “smoking pole” photo with Journal staff and said that it would be “irresponsible” to just look at the picture and disregard any other cause. Gumshoe Detective Agency is now seeking witnesses and victims to investigate what Treco said could be “the true cause” of the fire. The 10-year-old Auburn agency is looking for anyone who saw the fire starting at Rock Creek Road and Highway 49 – or other locations, especially if any photos or videos were taken. Also being sought are victims of the fire who have not yet been contacted by Gumshoe. Many lost their mail receptacles along with their homes and property in the fire, Treco said. Treco said he can be contacted by e-mailing, calling (530) 889-1945 or writing to 1230 High St., Suite 218, Auburn, CA 95603. “There is always rumor and conjecture with any major event or catastrophe but there have been too many coincidences and inconsistencies to be ignored,” Treco said. “We have a whole lot of people seeing the same thing and it bears looking into.” Copy changed May 21 to reflect correction regarding who hired Gumshoe Detective Agency.