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Center Fire probe continues

April 18, 2011

Fire officials continue to interview witnesses and investigate the origin and path of the Center Fire in Big Pine, hoping to release a final report on their findings in the near future.
According to Lead CalFire Investigator Bart Chambers, “everything plays into our investigation, we have to get statements from witnesses, from the first responders on scene, look at the burn indicators” and compile all that information into one coherent report.
In addition to interviewing witnesses and firefighters, investigators also review damage caused by the fire, which can be used by victims to file insurance claims.
Chambers refused to comment on specific details about the Center Fire probe, as the investigation is still ongoing, but said it is not unusual for an investigation to take several weeks.
He added that if a fire is suspected of being set by an arsonist, the investigation often takes longer, as investigators are required to work closely with the District Attorney to review evidence and build a case against the suspect.
Again, Chambers would not discuss details of the case, and it is currently unclear if the Center Fire was started by natural or human causes and if any charges will be filed in connection with the blaze that destroyed 19 homes and a number of out-buildings March 18-19.
The report on the Center Fire is nearly complete, but before it is released to residents, Chambers said it must be reviewed by several people who were involved with the investigation.
While residents await word from investigators on what caused the massive blaze, Inyo County officials continue to struggle with the California Emergency Management Agency, which has not yet agreed to recognize the county’s State of Emergency and reimburse the county for expenses incurred while fighting the blaze.
If CALEMA does not agree to reimburse the county, the Board of Supervisors is likely to stage a letter-writing campaign next week to encourage legislators to hold the state agency accountable for what County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio has called a lack of communication.
In the weeks following the fire, CALEMA requested to review the county’s budget to ensure the county is in need of reimbursement.
Carunchio said that move undermines the locally elected Board of Supervisors, but, because the county incurred nearly $100,000 in costs, he said he felt confident that the county would see some money reimbursed.
Since providing CALEMA with the county’s budget information, Carunchio said local officials have not been able to get in contact with the agency, which has refused to return phone calls or e-mails.

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