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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Diamond Springs volunteer firefighter pleaded not guilty Tuesday to three felony arson charges

A 24-year-old Diamond Springs volunteer firefighter pleaded not guilty Tuesday to three felony arson charges.

Benjamin Cunha, who has volunteered for several fire departments in El Dorado County and hails from a long line of career firefighters, is alleged to have started three fires within the past three weeks, according to the criminal complaint filed in El Dorado County Superior Court.

The complaint states that Cunha, of Placerville, set fire to a structure and forest land located at Sand Ridge Road in El Dorado on Aug. 21. Cunha also is alleged to have set fire to a structure and forest land at Big Cut Road near Excelsior Road in Placerville on Aug. 29 and to have set fire to a structure and forest land at Mosquito Road in Placerville on Sunday, the complaint states.

Cunha also faces a special allegation of arson with aggravating factors in regard to the three felonies. The arsons were caused by a device designed to delay ignition, the complaint states.

Cunha was arrested Sunday afternoon after an investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Amador-El Dorado Unit.

He is being held without bail at the El Dorado County Jail.

Cunha has been a volunteer firefighter for the Diamond Springs/El Dorado Fire Protection District since 2000. He has been placed on administrative leave.

Cunha also has worked as an apprentice firefighter for the El Dorado County Fire District and, from 2001 to 2003, was a seasonal firefighter for Cal Fire, said Phyllis Banducci, division chief for Cal Fire's Amador-El Dorado Unit.

Cunha's family members also have logged many years in fire service.

His father, Ed Cunha, worked for the Diamond Springs/El Dorado Fire Protection District for 23 years, retiring as a captain in 1997. He now serves on the fire district's executive board, said Marty Sanford, the fire district's assistant chief of operations and training.

Frank Cunha, Ed Cunha's father, retired from the fire district in 1985 after more than 20 years of service, he said

"The Cunha family has been an integral part of the fabric of the district for many years," Sanford said.

Cunha's next court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 17.

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