Cal Fire further explains redactions of Mountain Fire reports

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Two previous explanations offered by Cal Fire public information officers as to why the Cal Fire investigation reports of last year’s Mountain Fire (“potential future litigation under Government Code section 6254, subdivision (b)” and “one more step left in the investigation”) did not answer the Town Crier’s questions regarding the extent of the agency’s redactions discussing the origin and cause of the fire. But the most recent explanation, this one from Cal Fire’s in-house counsel, attorney David Wiseman, provides insight into Cal Fire’s legal reasons for the redactions.

Their basis is Government Code section 6254, subdivision (f), which provides an exemption for investigative reports prepared for law enforcement purposes, Wiseman explained. Although Cal Fire is not primarily a law enforcement agency and no appellate court yet has ruled on the availability of subdivision (f) to Cal Fire’s investigative reports, it is a state agency with a law enforcement branch and its claim under subdivision (f), according to Wiseman, is based on law enforcement purposes: whether criminal or civil charges will be brought regarding the Mountain Fire. No such decision yet has been made and it could take as long as two years, Wiseman said.

Wiseman acknowledged that “electrical equipment failure,” which was the three-word cause assigned in Cal Fire’s July 2013 press release, is so broad an explanation of cause as to encompass a manufacturing defect in a component part occurring years ago, or a recent maintenance problem at the premises of the fire, or anything in between, including faulty repairs, or even lightning strike or sabotage.

However, Wiseman stated that if either a criminal or civil action is filed, pretrial discovery will no doubt result in the release of the unredacted reports to the opposing party or parties, in which case there will be no further need for a claim of exemption and Cal Fire will release the unredacted reports to the public at that time. He also indicated that if neither a criminal nor civil action is brought, he would be seeking public release of the unredacted investigative reports via executive order within Cal Fire.

The Town Crier will periodically inquire of Wiseman and Cal Fire as to the status of any potential actions and the expected time of release of the unredacted reports and we will conduct further legal investigation into Cal Fire’s current exemption claim. The Town Crier will make any further information available to the public as soon as its received.

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