Wednesday, August 1, 2007

News: Two fires, one arsonist keep crews active

Amador Ledger Dispatch:

CAL FIRE Investigator Tom Oldag caught an arsonist in the act in Plymouth Friday afternoon on his way to an unrelated fire that burned 19 acres near Jackson earlier that day.

According to Oldag, the arsonist, Juan Antonio Cardona, had just started the grass fire on Highway 49 a half mile north of town when Oldag drove by in a marked truck. Calling in fire crews, Oldag turned around and, after a brief interview, took Cardona into custody.

"He seemed pretty unaware of the seriousness of what he had done," said Oldag. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Fortunately (the fire) didn't get big."

Members of the Plymouth fire department contained the fire in five minutes, according to Oldag.

Garrett Simmons, Oldag's partner, came in on his day off to investigate the wildland fire that torched the south side of Highway 88 four miles west of Jackson. Burn patterns on the ground led to hot products from a car that were determined to have started the fire, according to Simmons.

"People are always saying that cigarettes start these fires, but you need specific conditions for that to happen," said Simmons. "Chunks of catalytic converter (shot out the tail pipe) can reach 1,300 degrees. That's more than sufficient to start a grass fire."

Highway 88 was closed for half an hour while CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, and wards from the Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp, among others, worked to put out the fire.

The fires are the latest in a series of relatively manageable ones in Amador County while other counties have been experiencing worse fires than normal, according to multiple fire officials.

"It's just been mellow," said John Fracchia, a fire captain at Sutter Hill. "We're still catching them and keeping them small."

The spike in fires elsewhere is due to historically low levels of moisture in the brush, caused by a short, dry winter, according to CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Brian Kirk. Amador County has been lucky this season, Kirk said, in having little wind and few fire starts, such as the catalytic converter fragments.

Cardona, 18, faces a sentence of two to six years in jail, unless he proves unusual circumstances, according to District Attorney Todd Riebe. Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, Cardona lives with his mother in downtown Jackson, according to his father Antonio Hernandez Cardona.

He was appointed a public defender on Monday and will remain in jail until a second hearing on Aug. 16

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