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Charges pending related to Big Pine’s Center Fire?

December 30, 2011

Inyo County District Attorney’s investigators are attempting to make contact with all Big Pine residents who had property that was damaged or lost in the Center Fire. The District Attorney’s office may decide to press criminal charges against those believed to be responsible for the fire. File photo

Investigators with the Inyo County District Attorney’s Office are asking every individual who lost property in the Center Fire to contact them.
Investigator Lewis Roberts said the D.A.’s Office has a list of 20-30 fire victims from its initial investigation, and is hoping to verify those numbers before potentially filing criminal charges against those believed to be responsible for the late-March blaze.
A total of 19 homes were destroyed in the 800-acre fire. Estimates put the cost of damages from the fire at $4.5 million.
CalFire, the lead agency investigating the fire, turned over its final report and findings to the D.A.’s Office in August. The contents of that report have remained confidential, though CalFire noted from the beginning that the decision regarding the filing of any criminal charges rested with the D.A.’s Office. D.A. Art Maillet has not commented on the report and as of press time Wednesday, no criminal charges have been filed.
“For the criminal aspect of this, we want to make sure all the victims are listed,” Roberts said. “No criminal charges will be filed until all the victims are listed.”
Roberts added that the D.A.’s Office must complete cost estimates for damages before any criminal suit can be brought against those who are believed to have caused the fire.
Roberts said all his office is attempting to do is make contact with each of the victims and get an estimate from them on the cost of damages.
At this point, it is unclear how the blaze started, though there have been as-yet unsubstantiated reports that high winds may have kicked up embers from a camp fire or barbecue being tended by a group renting out the Bernasconi Center, where the fire broke out on March 18.
Due to high winds, the fire spread rapidly, driven northeast from Bernasconi into Big Pine, forcing local law enforcement officers from the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol to begin mandatory evacuations.
County Health and Human Services set up evacuation shelters in Bishop, Independence and Big Pine to house the displaced residents.
During the evacuation and throughout much of the night, U.S. 395 was closed to traffic from Bishop to Independence. Many residents who were evacuated were required to travel to Independence for shelter as the fire threatened to jump the highway.
At the fire’s peak, more than 250 firefighters from across the state, including volunteer firefighters from local communities from Lone Pine to Mammoth, responded to battle the blaze.
The fire spread quickly, moving from Bernasconi northeast, hitting first the westernmost areas of town including the Glacier View Mobile Home Park and the area near Rossi Road.
From there the fire spotted into the fields east of the Animal Shelter, between County and Baker Creek road, continuing east, jumping U.S. 395 north of State Route 168. There, firefighters were able to quell the bulk of the blaze, but crews remained on scene for the next couple days, mopping up and dousing hot spots.
Those who were impacted by the blaze are encouraged to call the District Attorney’s Office at (760) 873-7987 and leave a message. “An investigator will get back to you to assist in documenting and verifying your loss,” a press release states.

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