Cal Fire says it does not have enough evidence to determine cause of Glass fire
Cal Fire said Friday that a 10-month investigation into the origin of last year’s Glass fire ultimately proved inconclusive, meaning hundreds of Sonoma and Napa County residents who lost homes and other property to the 23-day blaze likely will never know what caused it.
The 38-page report from Cal Fire’s chief investigator indicated he was unable to rule out the possibility the Sept. 27 wildfire started in a bank of electrical panels associated with large water tanks and solar panels on a residential property in Napa County’s Deer Park area.
Cal Fire Capt. Gary Uboldi wrote that post-fire work around the equipment in the weeks between the wildfire’s start and his mid-November examination of the area had “disturbed the scene substantially, along with wet weather conditions which effectively destroyed any remaining items of evidentiary value.”
Officially the cause of the fire remains “undetermined.”
“After a very meticulous and thorough investigation, which included months of follow-up on information provided by the public, not enough evidence was available to conclusively identify the cause,” Cal Fire said in a statement. “The cause of the Glass Fire is currently Undetermined pending any additional information or evidence that could lead to the determination of the cause.”
The findings could prove disappointing to survivors and others who had hoped to find closure or lay fault for the 67,484-acre wildfire, which destroyed 1,555 structures, including more than 640 homes, and damaged about 30 winery properties.
But several interviewed Friday said it had not really been on their radar, given the many other challenges of fire recovery. And unlike many recent wildfires in the North Bay and Northern California, there was little speculation Pacific Gas & Electric power equipment or any other particular cause was to blame, so any movement for legal redress never took hold.
“In the case of the other fires, the cause had been fairly readily determined,” said Patrick Emery, a Santa Rosa attorney who lost the Plum Ranch Road home he and his wife, Alison Sanford, had lived in since 1995. “But I did not have the impression that would be true of this fire.”
He had held out hope of any closure through the conclusion of Cal Fire’s investigation.
“I’ve just accepted the fact that life here where my home is going to be different, it’s never going to be the same,” he said of his Alpine Valley neighborhood. “The oak forest is gone. I can landscape my new house, but I can’t replant the oak forest. So rather than lament the change I think you just have to get used to it and enjoy what you’ve got.”
The Glass fire erupted shortly after 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 27, outside St. Helena, on the east side of the Napa Valley, during a Red Flag warning that included high, easterly winds and a tinder-dry conditions.
Like so many of the catastrophic wildfires that have ripped through the region in recent years, the winds broadcast embers widely, igniting multiple spot fires in the vicinity that merged and spread, and made locating the origins of the breakout challenging.
The embercast also caused two secondary fires — initially called the Shady and the Boysen fires — clear across the Napa Valley on the evening of Sept. 27 that would converge and contribute to the momentum of the Glass fire as it roared across the Mayacamas Mountains into Santa Rosa that night, Uboldi wrote.
The fire would destroy 308 homes in Napa County and 334 in Sonoma County, devastating reaches of the Mark West Creek watershed, Los Alamos Road, parts of the Skyhawk subdivision and areas along Highway 12.
Uboldi, the Cal Fire investigator, was dispatched along with firefighting crews at 3:50 a.m. that Sunday morning, minutes after the fire was first reported.
Following flames, using heat maps and taking other guidance, he found himself on the western flank of Howell Mountain, examining electrical wiring at a vineyard gate and fencing off North Fork Crystal Springs Road for a lengthy period until the next evening, when his own home on St. Helena Road near Santa Rosa came under threat.
During the ensuing days, he continued to investigate fire patterns left by flames and collected evidence from the location, owned by Cakebread Vineyards, but his observations eventually led him to a neighboring property.
A report from a REACH medical helicopter pilot, who had seen the fire in its early stages and retraced his flight with Uboldi on board Oct. 7, confirmed the investigator’s belief the wildfire started somewhere on or near that residential property.