Martis Fire suspects plead not guilty
Two area teen-agers have pleaded not guilty to charges that they were responsible for the illegal campfire that led to June’s devastating Martis Fire.Morgan Cooper, 18, of Truckee and Christopher Austin, 18, of Hirschdale, were each charged in November with two misdemeanor counts for maintaining a campfire without a permit and leaving the fire unattended.The pleas of not guilty were presented in Nevada County Superior Court in Truckee Monday.Deputy District Attorney Fred T. Holmes has said that each count carries up to six months in jail and fines of up to $2,700.Cooper and Austin are being represented by the law firm Freeman & Routsis of Reno.Attorney Scott N. Freeman said Tuesday that he feels the fire’s devastation cannot be blamed on the teen-agers alone.”Anybody who’s familiar with the case and knows the circumstances that occurred knows that these two boys are not responsible for the devastating fire that occurred,” Freeman said.A report released by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection claimed that an illegal campfire started by Cooper and Austin led directly to the Martis Fire.Freeman said that the ultimate responsibility for letting the blaze escape into a 14,000-acre inferno lies with CDF.”CDF can say as loudly as they want that they didn’t start the fire,” Freeman said. “But they are in the business of putting out fires and my clients are not.”Freeman said that his clients do regret their role in the Martis Fire.”These are just two young, young men who have essentially never been in trouble before in their lives,” he said. “They’re very scared and upset about what occurred.”Deputy District Attorney Holmes has said the charges take into account the nature of the crime, not the result.”The results were horrendous, but the crimes themselves were not,” Holmes said in November. “They didn’t go out there to commit arson.”According to the CDF report, Cooper and Austin, camping on private property in the Juniper Hills area east of Truckee, awoke at approximately 3 a.m. on the morning of June 16 to the smell of smoke and crackling sounds near their camp.The two then spent more than two hours trying to extinguish the campfire that had spread outside of the fire’s rock ring pit in two directions.Shortly after Cooper and Austin left on the morning of June 16, CDF responded after receiving reports of smoke in the area. Two engines and crews claim to have put out the small blaze prior to leaving at 11:30 a.m.CDF was supposed to return and check up on the fire remains, but did not before it erupted into the Martis Fire.Austin, Cooper, a friend and a relative reportedly returned to the scene after CDF units had responded and left, only to find several hot spots still smoldering. According to the report, the group tried to extinguish the hot spots with “a water bottle, dirt, a machete and their feet.”By the next morning, the fire had roared out of control, spreading down the Truckee River canyon along Interstate 80. More than 14,500 acres were burned by the time the fire was contained nearly a month later.California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Doug Rinella told the Sierra Sun in November that in hindsight, his agency should have checked back on the fire sooner.”I wish we would have checked on the fire sooner, and I wish we would have gotten an earlier report and that the young men had taken better fire precaution,” he said.The next step for defendants Cooper and Austin is a pre-trial hearing scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21 at 8:30 a.m. at Nevada County Superior Court in Truckee.Freeman expressed his hopes that the charges against the two may be settled before ever coming to trial.”I’m very optimistic that we can settle it at that time, if reasonable minds can come to an agreement.”Additional reporting by Erich Sommer.