Cal Fire still is not talking about the origin and cause of the 2013 Mountain Fire that burned more than 27,000 acres, destroyed three single-family residences, three mobile homes, 12 outbuildings, two RVs and nine other vehicles, and it resulted in thousands evacuating their homes.
It has been more than a year since Cal Fire released investigative reports extensively addressing the fire’s origin and cause, but Cal Fire redacted (blacked out) all of the origin and cause information from those released reports.
On July 25, 2013, only four days after evacuated Hill residents were allowed to return, Cal Fire issued a press release providing a three-word description of the fire’s cause: “electrical equipment failure.” Specifically, the press release stated: “Cal Fire investigators have determined the cause of the ‘Mountain Fire’ to be an electrical equipment failure on private property. The electrical equipment failure occurred on the customer side of the meter. No further details will be released as this remains an on-going investigation.”
But the press release did not say what caused the electrical equipment failure — whether the electrical equipment failure was due to a defective electrical part that was faulty when it left the factory, or due to improper installation of electrical equipment by electricians, or due to improper maintenance by the property caretaker, or due to a bolt of lightning striking the electrical equipment causing it to fail, or due to sabotage, even. The press release did not identify what caused the electrical equipment failure or who was at fault for the blaze and responsible for the damage it caused.
Further, the statement, “No further details will be released as this remains an on-going investigation,” made clear that only when the investigation was concluded — no longer “on-going” — would Cal Fire release “further details.”
Then in early 2014, Cal Fire released its extensive, but heavily redacted reports providing “further details.” Consequently, by its own statements, Cal Fire’s investigation must by then have been concluded.
In the redacted reports, Cal Fire identified the fire as beginning somewhere on the property of Dr. Tarek M. Al-Shawaf in Mountain Center, but all information as to where on his property the fire originated and the fire’s cause was redacted.
The redacted version of the reports gave no indication of fault or responsibility for the Mountain Fire — even though by Cal Fire’s own statements, its investigation must have by then been concluded.
The first Cal Fire public information officer contacted by the Town Crier told the paper that the investigation really wasn’t concluded, that there was still “an additional step” involving acceptance of the report by Cal Fire administrative officials. This explanation would have forced the conclusion that Cal Fire must have released its redacted reports with their “further details” before its investigation was concluded, which it had said it would not do.
The second Cal Fire public information officer contacted by the Town Crier told the paper the investigative reports were exempted from the California Public Records Act under Government Code section 6254, subdivision (b), which exempts reports relating to criminal or civil litigation. But California courts have long ago established that this means only presently existing litigation, not litigation that might take place in the future after the reports are generated. Since there still is no existing litigation involving the Mountain Fire, this exemption is not available to Cal Fire.
On June 25, 2014, the Town Crier then served on Cal Fire a formal, written request under the CPRA to examine and copy Cal Fire’s unredacted reports regarding the Mountain Fire. On June 26, Cal Fire received the Town Crier’s CPRA request.
Eventually, a Cal Fire house counsel, David Wiseman, told the Town Crier that the unredacted investigative reports would not be produced because they were exempted under Government Code section 6254, subdivision (f), as investigative reports prepared for law enforcement purposes. But the attorney also told the paper that they would not remain exempt under this subdivision forever, that after two years or so of inactivity, he would be indicating to Cal Fire administrators that it would be time to release the investigative information.
Recently recontacted by the Town Crier in April 2015, only three months before the two-year anniversary of the fire, attorney Wiseman stated that still no decision had been made as to civil or criminal prosecution, so the reports’ origin and cause information still would not be released at this time. He alluded to an indefinite future time when he thought the unredacted reports might be released, but could relate no information as to when that might be.
Meanwhile, a serious concern of persons or entities who experienced damaged or destroyed property in the Mountain Fire is the California statute of limitations for filing litigation alleging damage to property, which will expire just 15 months from now.