Questions linger in Martis Fire investigation
Local firefighters have grown angry and impatient that state fire agency officials have not released a final report on the Martis Fire’s cause, nearly three months since containment of the blaze.
Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Mike Terwilliger said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has embarrassed him and other area firefighters because of the agency’s failure to issue even a preliminary report on the cause of the fire.
“I’m embarrassed for CDF on how they’re handling this,” said Terwilliger. “Rumors are running rampant in the community. Other agencies are being accused of withholding information. The assumption is the fire service is hiding something … (CDF is) probably hoping this situation will just go away. And it will, if no one says anything.”
Bryce Keller, division chief for the North Tahoe Fire Protection District, also believes the department has had ample time to issue a statement regarding the fire that cost an estimated $18.5 million to suppress.
“I think it’s safe to say the field investigation is completed. Which begs the question, how come nothing has been disseminated?” said Keller, a former battalion chief with CDF.
The waiting game
Investigators completed the preliminary report, which included the field investigation, about three weeks after the July 1 containment, according to Tony Clarabut, unit chief for the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit of CDF. However, a hectic fire season and a complex report prolonged the review process. Clarabut said the 3-inch thick document remains in the Sacramento office of the department’s director, Andrea Tuttle.
“The management people are the ones reviewing it, and they have other roles – in resource allocation and overall management,” he said.
While there is no typical length to an investigation, Clarabut said, the duration depends upon the complexity of the case. The investigation for a small incident can be over in an hour; for significant incidents, Clarabut emphasized the importance of accuracy in the report, and, therefore, the need for sufficient time to complete it.
When this news organization spoke to Clarabut Aug. 27, he said he expected the report to be released the following week. The report had been completed and submitted, but no further information could be offered.
“I would’ve hoped (the report’s release) would’ve been before now,” Clarabut said at the time, echoing what Jim Hoffmier, a CDF battalion chief and investigator under Clarabut, said earlier in August.
On Sept. 21, Clarabut said that in the course of the report’s review, some additional information was sought. The Martis Fire report received its final staff review Sept. 20, and it was to be released this week, according to Clarabut. On Tuesday, he said CDF management assured him the report would be released by Oct. 2.
Terwilliger and Keller are skeptical of the department’s reticence, wondering if CDF is trying to cover up a mistake. The two firemen think the agency should be forthright, admit there was a mistake if there was one and bring closure to this aspect of the 14,500-acre blaze.
“Their inability to step up and admit a mistake is a blight on the whole fire service,” Terwilliger said.
Clarabut would not respond to that comment, standing behind CDF management’s edict to not release any information until the CDF investigation report was made public.
Clarabut did say he did not expect anyone to be found negligent in the case; he was not sure if any parties would be found liable. As of Sept. 25, no reports or suits had been filed with the Nevada County District Attorney’s Office nor have any charges or arrests been made by the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office either. If no one is found liable, a general fund will pay for the fire’s costs.
As flames spread into Nevada in the days after the fire begun, rumors and leads about how the conflagration started also intensified. Some came from CDF and mentioned a possible relationship between the fire and a marijuana cultivation operation. Evidence of marijuana root balms was found in a trash receptacle off Martis Peak Road near the fire’s origin. While incredulous Martis Peak Road residents scoffed at the bewildering connection, CDF investigators concluded this lead did not amount to much and eventually discarded the possibility.
The vast majority of rumors linked the Martis Fire, which started June 17 at 12:04 p.m., with another fire that ignited the previous morning in the vicinity. CDF officials have not commented on the association of the two, but based on first-hand experience, Terwilliger is convinced the events are related.
Terwilliger responded to the Saturday-morning fire about the same time CDF answered the call, around 7 a.m. on June 16. Terwilliger knew where the fire was – about two miles east of his house in Glenshire – and suggested to the CDF crew that they take a route on Martis Peak Road before he led them to the blaze, located near the community of Hirschdale.
Two fire engines entered the area where the crew laid some 300 feet of hose and fought and built a fire line around the 30-foot by 30-foot stretch of enflamed slash, pine needles and forest debris. Terwilliger says the relatively small blaze was obviously from an escaped campfire, as has been alleged, and it was a routine fire.
He suspected that if the fire had started in the middle of the afternoon, there would have been a major fire right then. Conditions were unusually dry for June and there was an abundance of forest fuel.
Knowing the two engine companies and seeing they were managing the fire, Terwilliger went home around 8:15 a.m., leaving behind a water tender. As it was a simple fire, there was no other reason for him to be there, he thought.
Another day, another fire
Terwilliger worked around the house for the remainder of the morning. Around noon, he heard over the radio that the two engine crews were back in quarters.
The fire was contained and controlled – a complete fire line had been built and it was visibly extinguished. The assumption was the CDF crew would check it that evening, Terwilliger, a 24-year CDF veteran, said.
“I know CDF operation. Those guys used to work for me. Standard operating procedure in this country – in any timber country – is that you have to go back and check a fire … There are always hidden sources that can be hot. There’s no mystery to that. I trained them to do that. They felt they had it down,” he said.
Still, at the time Terwilliger thought “‘They’re back in quarters too soon. We’re going to have a fire.'”
He picked up a phone and called his station.
“‘Don’t be surprised if we have a fire. They weren’t there long enough,'” he told a captain.
Nonetheless, Terwilliger wasn’t overly concerned. He believed the CDF crew would return to inspect the fire.
“You have to check these things for about four days, twice a day in the hot period of the day. I figured they would go back and check it,” he said.
Although there was a planned inspection, that never took place, Terwilliger said.
“There’s something that happened that distracted them,” he said. “The engines weren’t committed for any lengthy assignments. They don’t know why they didn’t go back. It fell through the cracks.”
Doug Rinella, CDF battalion chief for the Truckee unit said his crew had plans to check the fire the next day.
“We got diverted. Our intentions were to go out there before lunch Sunday, but we decided to go out after lunch Sunday,” he said.
Clarabut also said that a check-up was planned, but he did not comment if one had been completed. The CDF investigation report will indicate that, he said.
The Martis Fire began the next day. At its peak intensity, more than 3,200 total personnel fought the fire, and two weeks later CDF, along with numerous other agencies, had contained it. CDF officials have said they will consider the fire out when 3 feet of snow stand on top of it.
To Terwilliger, it’s obvious that the fire came out of the exact origin of the previous day’s fire.
“In my mind, if they’d have gone back and checked the fire later that day, and the next day, this fire would not have happened,” he said.
But Terwilliger doesn’t hold the fact that the fire rekindled against CDF. It was an oversight, albeit one with terrible consequences.
“To me, it’s an honest mistake. I’m not going to bash them for it because it could happen to me. It’s the nature of the business. But it’s time to come forward. This litigious society makes us afraid to admit mistakes. It is my opinion the new fire came from the old. It is incumbent upon them to give us some documentation that says it’s not. Maybe they will come up with something,” he said.
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The past few weeks have felt choking. Every time I step outside, I feel like I can’t breathe. The walls that keep the smoke out seem to get smaller and smaller as summer crawls on.