Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Santa Cruz Summit Fire - Felony arrest made $250,000 bail

Contractor Channing Verden arrested in connection with starting Summit FireA contractor hired to clear scrub brush off about five acres of land on Summit Road has been arrested on suspicion his work sparked the devastating Summit Fire in May.

Channing Parker Verden, 50, of Los Gatos, faces up to seven years in state prison for starting the 4,270-acre wildfire that erupted between Summit Road and Maymen Flats in the pre-dawn darkness on May 22.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office requested a warrant for Verden's arrest April 14. He was taken into custody Tuesday and booked into Santa Clara County Jail on $250,000 bail. The standard bail for the crime he is accused of is $60,0000. He remains in custody.

"I'm really glad to see that they're going to hold someone accountable if in fact this person is responsible," said Mary-Margaret Bierbaum, a local attorney whose house on Ormsby Cutoff Road was destroyed in the fire. "Now there will be a finish to the story. I think people will feel a lot better and more resolved."

Verden owns Advanced Earth Technologies, a general engineering company with an address on Loma Almaden Road in the Los Gatos hills. Apparently, Summit Road property owner Andrew Napell hired Verden in March 2008 to conduct land clearing and paid him $18,000 for the work. During that project - two months before the wildfire ignited - concerns about Verden's work practices caught the attention of Cal Fire personnel, according to court documents.

But the first 911 calls reporting the wildfire came in at 5:16 a.m. on May 22. Within hours, the fire had mushroomed, consuming hundreds of acres of manzanita forests and dozens of homes.

The Summit Fire burned uncontained for more than five days in the mountains between Corralitos and the town of Loma Prieta in Santa Clara County. Battling the fire, which burned on steep slopes and in deep ravines, proved challenging due to high winds, hot weather, dry vegetation and poor access.

The blaze destroyed 132 structures and cost about $15 million to battle.

Kay Price, an arson investigator and peace officer for Cal Fire, and Cal Fire Capt. Greg Latronica, who was on the first engine to arrive at the fire, located the general area of origin: six large burn piles in a clearing on the east side of Summit Road - Napell's property, according to Cal Fire.

Two of the burn piles were smoking, according to Price's statement. The temperature inside one pile was 921 degrees Fahrenheit the afternoon the fire broke out. The temperature of the second pile was 1,022 degrees Fahrenheit, Price reported.

"...(M)easuring temperatures so high in these piles indicated there was no effort to extinguish the piles with water prior to any work crews leaving the job site over four weeks ago," Price wrote in her statement of probable cause.

Embers blown from the open burning operation by a strong east/northeast wind into dry vegetations sparked the fire, Price stated.

Moving forward

It's been 11 months since the Summit Fire ravaged the mountainside. Tuesday afternoon, TV crews once again drove vans through the town of Corralitos and up Eureka Canyon Road, according to Dave Peterson, the owner of Corralitos Market, who heard the news of Verden's arrest from customers.

"We always kind of wondered what came out of it because it always kind of seemed like it was a hush-hush deal," Peterson said. "So much time has gone by that everyone kind of moved on with their lives not really knowing what had happened or who started it.... It made it seem suspicious because no one heard about it."

During the fire, the market was a meeting place for the community and later, Peterson and his employees collected donations for fire victims. Together, the market and the Corralitos Padres gave about $12,000 cash to help people displaced by the fire to get them back on their feet.

"It was sad, but there maybe was some good out of it," Peterson said. "It sure did bring our community together."

Jim Johnsoon was another person who reached out to help those fire victims. The Almaden resident has repeatedly organized church volunteer groups to assist in the fire zone.

"We shoveled up a lot of debris, we rented Dumpsters, we cut up cars, we brought up grocery gift cards and grocery gift cards and we've been helping people the best we can," said Johnson, who led volunteers in planting 2,600 trees in late February and early March.

Johnson said he didn't have a feeling either way about Verden's arrest; he just hoped that the development may help people affected by the fire move forward with their lives.

"It's been extremely difficult for people. It's hurt people very substantially and it's going to take people a long time to recover," he said. "I think that good can come out of a tragic situation but this was a real big deal, real devastating for a number of people. This was huge. But the forest is slowly coming back and people are slowly putting their lives back together."

Peterson also said he didn't know how to take the arrest.

"For some of these people it's just kind of rekindling, bringing this all back up again," he said. "On the other hand - 360 - does it maybe make them feel like this is a closure? Maybe they can finalize this."

The criminal case

The arrest warrant for Verden lists one count: causing a fire that caused an inhabited structure or property to burn, a felony which carries a penalty of up to four years in state prison. That count covers all of the homes destroyed by the fire, according to deputy district attorney David Boyd, who is prosecuting Verden.

Also, there is an allegation that Verden caused multiple structures to burn. That enhancement could add up to three years to his prison sentence.

The District Attorney's Office chose not to file charges against Napell, Price said.

"We have to keep in mind that criminal charges are serious and we cannot just charge anyone," Boyd said. "There certainly wasn't sufficient evidence that he committed a crime. I think we could all presume that the contractor could do the job legally and safely and rely on that."

According to the statement of probable cause submitted by Price, she and another Cal Fire official went to Napell's property, located at 31000 Summit Road, on March 25, 2008 for a smoke investigation and found several large debris piles on the property. The piles were not cured, which is a violation of air quality regulations, and one large pile was burning, according to Price's statement.

There also was no water supply at the scene and Verden was warned that any burning was hazardous because weather conditions and fuel moisture levels were already at extreme levels for that time of year, Price reported.

Still, Verden and his two-man crew burned the large piles - at least one was 10 feet high - on the property. One of Verden's employees, Carl Edwards, later told fire investigators the vegetation was too wet to burn well. The other employee, Sun Hill, said that embers sometimes blew off the piles toward Summit Road. He had also used a shovel to put out several small spot fires that ignited at night, according to Price's statement.

State regulations require that all burn piles be extinguished by dark and that someone needed to be tending to the piles at all times.

But in the first week in April, Verden and his crew abandoned the job early because an excavator caught fire, according to Cal Fire. Later that month, a Cal Fire captain whose job duties include handling open burning permits along Summit Road, met with Verden. Verden again was advised the burning could only occur during the daytime and that someone must tend to the fire, and he was also told the debris piles were too large to burn as they stood, according to Price.

It's unclear what steps, if any, Verden took to comply with those regulations. Price would not say if any Cal Fire personnel checked the piles again.

Price also declined to say if Verden cooperated with investigators or if Cal Fire officials had taken note of problems with his work practices in the past.

The probe of the fire lasted nearly a year.

"With any investigation you have to follow up all of your leads, you have to review all your data," Price said. "Just on a daily basis, we are responsible to determine origin and cause. Sometimes they're easy... and others, a lot of stuff is involved."

She added that Cal Fire officials turned over their findings about the Summit Fire to the Santa Clara District Attorney's Office months ago but the DA's Office investigators and attorneys needed to review the case.

Cal Fire crews responded to 431 fires in the Santa Cruz County area last year, many of which were escaped controlled burns like the Summit Fire. However, those fires usually don't grow beyond 1-2 acres, because they happen when Cal Fire has lots of personnel on duty and are located in areas that have easy access.

In some of those negligent fire cases, people thought to be responsible are charged criminally or civilly, Price said.

Two other large wildfires burned in Santa Cruz County in 2008. No arrests have been made in connection with those fires.

The Martin Fire ignited in the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve, near Ice Cream Grade and Martin Road east of Bonny Doon, the afternoon of June 11. The blaze burned 520 acres and destroyed 11 homes. Cal Fire investigators suspected a hiker trespassing the reserve, also known as "Moonrocks," sparked the fire. The hiker was never located.

The Trabing Fire started east of Highway 1 near Trabing and Buena Vista roads the afternoon of June 20. The fire destroyed 26 homes and 49 outbuildings. Fire investigators said the 630-acre blaze ignited when hot embers from vehicle exhaust ignited dry grasses on the side of the highway. Finding that vehicle is highly unlikely, officials said.

Verden likely will be arraigned in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Thursday. If he is convicted, restitution for victims of the fire would be a part of any sentence meted out by the court. Also, Cal Fire has provisions outside of the criminal court system to recoup the costs of battling the fire, according to Boyd, the deputy district attorney.

Boyd asked that anyone with additional information about the Summit Fire probe contact Investigator Craig Farley at 408-299-7400.

STARTED: May 22 at 5:20 a.m.
CONTAINED: May 27 at 6 p.m.
LOCATION: Summit Road and Maymen Flats, between Corralitos and the town of Loma Prieta in Santa Clara County.
STRUCTURES DESTROYED: 63 homes and 69 outbuildings.
CAUSE: Six not properly attended burn piles at 31000 Summit Road. The case was given to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office in the summer.
COST TO FIGHT FIRE: $14.85 million

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