Battle of investigators during Cocos Fire Trial

CBS News 8 – San Diego, CA News Station – KFMB Channel 8

During the trial in which a 14 year old girl is accused of starting the Cocos Fire, wildland fire investigators gave conflicting opinions on how the fire started. The prosecution contends that when the girl, 13 at the time, started a fire near her back yard, a burning ember traveled 0.44 miles and ignited the fire that burned 1,995 acres and destroyed 36 homes in San Marcos, California, north of San Diego.

In testimony on Tuesday CAL FIRE Capt. David LaClair said he and another investigator determined that an ember from the girl’s backyard started the fire 0.44 miles away. She admitted to starting two fires that day. One was small and was extinguished.

Below is an excerpt from an article at utsandiego:

…The second backyard fire grew to 111 feet by 42 feet, according to LaClair. He said that embers from that blaze — fueled by hot and windy Santa Ana conditions — caused three spot fires. One was 14 feet to the west of the backyard fire, and it grew to 6 feet by 27 feet. Another was 245 feet west of the backyard fire, and it grew to 6 feet by 15 feet. The third became the Cocos blaze. LaClair said all three spot fires were to the west of and in line with the backyard fire.

Two other investigators testified on Friday. Below are excerpts from an article at nbcsandiego:

The defense’s wildfire expert, Douglas Allen, testified Friday the Washingtonia Fire did not have enough loft to launch embers more than 200 feet, let along 11 times that distance. He said strong winds like the Santa Anas blowing that day — May 13, 2014 – often bring embers to the ground.

“They have a much better chance of being lofted with less wind affecting the convection column,” said Allen, referring to the rising column of smoke and ashes created by a fire.

Upon cross-examination, Allen admitted he has written that Santa Ana winds could spread embers more than a mile away. However, he maintained that while that statement is in general true, he does not believe that happened in this case.

Deputy District Attorney Shawnalyse Ochoa then tried to put the retired fire investigator’s recent training into question. Asked when was the last time he took a wildland fire class, he said “I couldn’t remember.”

“What decade was that?” Ochoa asked.

“Was that a joke?” Allen replied laughing.

“No, sir,” the prosecutor said.

“In the last decade,” Allen testified.

Ochoa asked if he was familiar computer programs like Behave Plus or Wind Ninja – computer programs that help wildfire experts in their investigation. Allen said while familiar with them, he has not used them.

Earlier in the day, Cal Fire Behavior Analyst Tim Chavez took the stand, directly contradicting Allen. He said he has high confidence an ember from the Washintonia Fire started the Cocos blaze — what the prosecution has been arguing.

Chavez told the court a computer system estimated the wind speeds that day were around 24 miles per hour. However, he said when you stand where the Cocos Fire started, there is a narrow gap in the topography that could have pushed the winds stronger that day, sending an ember from the Washingtonia Fire to the start of the Cocos Fire.

The defense said the report on the Cocos Fire is based on a theory that doesn’t match the same conditions of the Washingtonia Fire and that theory hasn’t been proven.

The images below are screen shots from the video above, showing parts of testimony from Friday. The two people are described as investigators, but are not named. It is probable they are the two investigators named in the article, with the first being CAL FIRE Fire Behavior Analyst Tim Chavez, and the second, retired CAL FIRE investigator Doug Allen. (UPDATE at 8:10 p.m. MDT, March 22, 2015: someone who knows him confirmed that the person in the first photo is Mr. Chavez  — the gentleman with the CAL FIRE shoulder patch.)

Fire investigator Cocos Fire

Fire investigator Cocos FireThanks and a tip of  the hat go out to Ken.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

9 thoughts on “Battle of investigators during Cocos Fire Trial”

  1. If I remember correctly the child was burning brush in her backyard to get rid of brush. Now prosecutors will have to prove she had intent to start a malicious fire with the purpose to cause damage. Her intent is the biggest defense as well. If I was the defense I would also use past examples of the Forest Service doing the same thing and causing one of the largest fires in Arizona history. Not making excuses for her or her parents in burning this brush on their private property as they obviously didnt have common sense in doing it in windy conditions but I also dont believe a 13 year old should be branded for life because of an act of god. Also if people did their defensive spacing around their homes properly I doubt there would be as many destroyed homes. We can sit here and arm chair quarter back it but it happened.

    1. Negative. In CA, there is no burden of “intent”. Negligence or grossly negligent actions (acts of commission or ommission) are punishable under the statutes (PC and PRC).

      1. Oh well in that case I would attack the fact that no one can say beyond a reasonable doubt that the ember from the orginal fire could of caused the cocos fire. Fire arson is one of the hardest cases to prosecute. There’s always reasonable doubt in fire arson cases but it up to the prosecutor or defense to convince the jury that their side is right.

  2. Interesting. Types of fuels, potential to lift up burning embers, wind levels at different elevations, probability of ignition and more… Each expert has a case to present and a jury to convince on a most unique subject. At 13, the girl as a minor has no financial responsibility but her parents/legal guardians do and their insurance company if they carry liability on the residence. I suspect she will have required participation in a youth fire starter prevention program considering her age.

  3. Tim Chavez is about as good as they get. We can all aspire to have half of his knowledge, skills, and abilities.

  4. Ah yes, the dueling Expert Witnesses: my expert is more expert than your expert! So there!!

    1. I suspect she confessed to starting a fire in her back yard. I doubt she knows whether or not she started a fire 2300 feet away from her home. With an estimated cost of containment at $12 million dollars, it’s an expensive question. Tough way to start life, already owing the taxpayers $200,000 a year for the next 60 years.


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