Pages extracted from the Mountain Fire report show the extent of Cal Fire’s redactions. Courtesy of Cal Fire
Pages extracted from the Mountain Fire report show the extent of Cal Fire’s redactions.
Courtesy of Cal Fire

On May 12, 2014, Cal Fire released its report to the Idyllwild Town Crier on the Mountain Fire, which started on July 15, 2013, in Mountain Center, forced the evacuation of the vast majority of Hill residents and cost $25 million in public funds to fight.

The report includes the findings of several Cal Fire investigators into the origin and cause of the 22,000-acre wildfire. However, Cal Fire redacted (blacked out) all parts of its report that addressed the origin or the cause of the fire.

In response to numerous inquiries by the Town Crier over the past 11 months, Cal Fire stated that it would not release information about the Mountain Fire until its investigation was complete.

About five weeks ago, in response to the Town Crier’s oral and emailed requests under the California Public Records Act (sections 6250 to 6270), Cal Fire released its heavily redacted report to the Town Crier.

The Town Crier has questioned the extensive redactions numerous times in the last five weeks, but received no explanation for the redactions and no claims of exemption from Cal Fire.

In July 2013, a Cal Fire news release revealed the general cause of the fire to be “electrical equipment failure,” but gave no specifics.

On Monday, Cal Fire informed the Town Crier that the final origin and cause determination is not made in the investigators’ reports but in an additional step that has not yet taken place. Cal Fire says that when the origin and cause determination is final it will issue a further press release to that effect.

When asked by the Town Crier whether it was common for Cal Fire to release redacted fire investigation reports, Capt. Michael Mohler, Cal Fire Southern Region information officer, responded that it is common in instances where criminal or civil litigation is possible.

But the Town Crier is questioning this assertion, because unless criminal or civil litigation is already pending — meaning it already has been filed — the litigation exception does not apply to Cal Fire’s report. (Fairley v. Superior Court (1998) 66 Cal. App. 4th 1414, 1420-1422; 71 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 235 (1988).) The Town Crier is currently investigating whether any such litigation is on file. Cal Fire has not said whether or not litigation has been filed.

It is clear, however, from even the redacted report, authored by Cal Fire’s Fire Capt. Specialist Wayne Howerton, that the fire’s origin was somewhere on property owned by Dr. Tarek M. Al-Shawaf in Mountain Center. Throughout the full report all mentions of the exact location on Al-Shawaf’s property where the fire originated are redacted, even from a narrative report by the employee of another agency: Steven Williams, BDF Patrol 54, of the U.S. Forest Service.

And wherever the report alludes to the cause of the fire, Cal Fire redacted that text also — including the final two pages of the report by Cal Fire’s Fire Capt. Specialist David LaClair, who was specifically assigned “origin and cause” responsibility by Cal Fire. The final 11 lines of his report — constituting the entire section entitled “Opinion and Conclusion” — are blacked out.

Likewise, Cal Fire completely blacked out a full-page section entitled “Violation” from the main report by Howerton.

Cal Fire also redacted the narrative report of electrician Greg Ezquerro, who was called in from its Electrical Division to investigate this incident and parts of a 2013 Google satellite photo included in Howerton’s report.

Nonetheless, Howerton’s redacted report, in a section entitled “Evidence,” does show that Cal Fire took three items into evidence. Item no. 1 is a tripped electrical circuit breaker Cal Fire removed from an electrical panel on the property. Item no. 2 is an electrical junction box Cal Fire personnel cut out of electrical lines on the property. Item no. 3 was some electrical wrap.

LaClair’s report includes a hand-drawn map showing the electrical panel located at the north side of the main house. The map also shows a junction box located 488 feet northeasterly from the electrical panel.

The entirety of Howerton’s redacted Mountain Fire report, with all its attachments, including supplemental reports and photographs, can be viewed online at the Town Crier’s website.

The Town Crier will serve on Cal Fire a written follow-up to its California Public Records Act request seeking an unredacted copy of Howerton’s Mountain Fire report and its attachments, including supplemental reports.

The Town Crier will publish the Cal Fire final press release and any other developments as soon as they are made available.

Click here to view the Mountain Fire Report.