North Bay fires a complex puzzle for investigators seeking answers on cause
GLEN ELLEN - Sonoma Valley sculptor Bryan Tedrick has long found inspiration here on a remote piece of creekside land, where he shapes oversized figures of metal, stone and wood. Lately, this quiet meadow rimmed by forest has drawn an unusual group of visitors.
Tedrick said “layers of investigators” have combed this area off Nuns Canyon Road since an unprecedented firestorm erupted Oct. 8, destroying his workshop as it ran roughshod over 142 square miles of Sonoma County.
State authorities and contract investigators have planted colored flags, taken measurements, shot pictures and scrutinized an area about 100 feet from Tedrick's rented shop, where a corrugated metal pump house and charred utility pole sit amid blackened tree trunks above the banks of Calabazas Creek.
The vicinity is one suspected point of origin for the Nuns fire, the largest of several devastating blazes in Sonoma County that broke out nearly three weeks ago and are set to be fully contained Tuesday.
Including the deadly Tubbs fire, which began near Calistoga and burned through northern Santa Rosa, the blazes destroyed 6,957 structures in the county - most of them homes - and killed at least 23 people. Preliminary damage estimates top $3 billion.
Closely guarded job
Since nearly the first hours of the wind-whipped disaster, officials have been trying to determine how the fires started near Glen Ellen, Calistoga and other areas in Wine Country. More than a dozen fires erupted that night across the North Bay; the deadliest, the Tubbs fire, made a 12-mile run from Calistoga into a north Santa Rosa neighborhood in just over four hours.
The investigation is a closely guarded job done by a tight-lipped network of experts. They collect physical evidence - some of it microscopic - conduct interviews with witnesses and use high-tech equipment to try to pinpoint the origin of flames that swept over vast landscapes, consuming much in their path.
“Our No. 1 objective is we want to get it right,” said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Ron Eldridge, who leads the agency's Southern California law enforcement division and has about seven investigators assigned to fire probes in the northern part of the state. “It's going to take time, and we're going to very methodically work our way through that investigation to make sure we put out the best available investigation.”
The high-stakes role for Cal Fire, the state forestry and firefighting agency, is to determine if any of the fires may have been caused by criminal conduct or negligence, and if so, by whom. Any findings could lay the groundwork for subsequent civil proceedings or criminal prosecution, Eldridge and others said.
Developing a picture
The investigations could be a factor in third-party cases, which have already started to emerge in Bay Area courts. A Santa Rosa couple filed suit earlier this month in San Francisco against PG&E, claiming the utility is responsible for the Tubbs fire that destroyed their Coffey Park home and thousands of others in Sonoma County. The suit alleges the company failed to maintain and repair high-voltage power lines, which the couple claims came into contact with parched vegetation, starting the Tubbs fire and several others still burning in Wine Country.
Winds gusted above 60 and 70 mph in some parts of the county the night of the firestorm, when downed power lines were reported across the region. Atop Geysers Peak, sustained winds were measured at 94 mph, with gusts as high as 108 mph, Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said.
“The winds, along with the millions of trees weakened by the years of drought, all contributed to some tree branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay,” said Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman.
All such instances have been reported to state utility regulators, Contreras said, and PG&E is cooperating with state investigators.
“We're not going to speculate about a cause,” she said. “Our focus is real answers.”
Fire investigators are stressing the same message: They have to remain open to all possible causes.
Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said 26 members of Cal Fire's law enforcement branch, which employs 193 investigators, are taking part in efforts to pinpoint the origins of each individual fire and determine their causes.
Four U.S. Forest Service investigators also have been sent to help, according to Kevin Mayer, an assistant special agent in charge with the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region. It is common in such wildfire disasters also to engage experts and consultants in various fields to develop a complete picture of how each fire got underway, officials said.