Charges against Gap Fire suspects dismissed
AUBURN — A Placer County judge has dismissed felony charges against four Sacramento men who had been accused of causing the 2,500-acre Gap Fire last August.
Judge John Cosgrove said Tuesday that there was not enough evidence to try Dustin Epstein, Nick Parker and Nick Lotta, all 20 years old, and 21-year-old Scott Michael Brown.
Epstein, Parker, Lotta and Brown were stranded Aug. 11 when their Jeep got stuck near Emigrant Gap. They laid a rock base and lit a campfire after they were unable to hike out by nightfall.
Deputy District Attorney Joe McInerney said the men were aware of the fire danger and of a Tahoe National Forest ban on fires in all areas except designated campgrounds, but chose to have a fire “for their own comfort” after getting stuck in the forest overnight.
In fact, Epstein had already been ticketed earlier that day by a Tahoe National Forest ranger for another campfire, McInerney said.
That’s one reason his office sought felony charges, he said.
“They got put on notice about the high wildfire dangers. My question was, ‘What more can anyone do?'”
The men said they covered the burn pit with dirt the next morning. They were unable to find water in the area. The men also said they assumed the fire was out when they left the area.
Early in the afternoon, embers that hadn’t been extinguished started a fire that was fueled by hot winds. The fire eventually spread across Interstate 80.
Defense attorney David Cohen said the incident revolved around an unfortunate set of circumstances that led to the fire.
“None of them were happy it happened but they’re certainly happy with the result of today’s hearing,” said Cohen, the court-appointed attorney for Nick Lotta.
Cohen said the four men and a woman had been among a group of about 10 campers at the TNF’s North Fork campground near the North Fork American River. The fivesome went four-wheeling and got stuck at 7:30 p.m. about 2 1/2 miles from camp, he said. They spent three hours trying to dig out their jeep.
Two of the men, Nick Parker and Nick Lotta, tried to find their way back to camp but gave up. Dustin Epstein and Scott Brown built the campfire, McInerney said.
Cohen said a number of factors prompted them to build the fire: “You’re in T-shirts and shorts and there’s no light and there’s been bear sightings … no food, no water.”
But McInerney said that about six miles away, a weather station at White Cloud campground showed the temperature didn’t drop below 68 degrees that night.
“So that wasn’t an issue in my opinion. I’ve done enough camping where you don’t have a fire,” he said.
“They chose to go up there … they chose to go 4-wheeling late in the evening,” he added. “All these things were choices and they had responsibilities.”
Cohen said the defendants were offered plea bargains for misdemeanor charges.
But guilty pleas could have left them vulnerable to paying restitution, including for $4.5 million in fire fighting costs, he said.
“There was an issue as to whether it would follow them around for the rest of their lives,” he said. “It essentially would ruin these kids.”
McInerny said, “We have the option of filing other charges, misdemeanor charges, and we’re reviewing that and we’ll make a decision shortly.”
Cohen didn’t think new charges would be filed.
“Every one of these people … felt pretty horrible about it,” Cohen added. “These people love the outdoors.”
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.