University professor admits setting fires behind Dixie Fire firefighters

A former university professor who taught criminal justice (you can’t make this stuff up) has pleaded guilty to setting fires behind firefighters on the 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California, which was at the time the second-largest fire in state history.

arsonist "Professor" Gary Maynard
Arsonist Professor Gary Maynard

Gary Maynard, 49, of San Jose was in federal court this week on three counts of arson on federal property, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento. The fires that Maynard started effectively surrounded the firefighters, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The Mercury News reported that the Dixie Fire burned through five counties over 963,300 acres, destroying 1,311 structures and killing one person, according to Cal Fire.

Also, Marcus Pacheco, an assistant fire engine operator for the Lassen National Forest, died of Covid while working the fire, as did two water tender operators, Jose T. Calderon and Cessar Saenz, both of San Diego County.

Maynard faces up to 20 years in a prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the three counts of arson on federal property, the U.S. Justice Department said in a press release following his plea on Thursday; sentencing is set for May.  He was charged with setting four fires — Cascade, Everitt, Ranch, and Conard — and under the plea agreement he admitted to three of the four counts.

The Dixie Fire itself was ignited when Pacific Gas & Electric powerlines came in contact with a nearby pine tree, according to Cal Fire. PG&E paid $45 million to settle the lawsuit.

At Santa Clara University and Sonoma State University, Maynard lectured in criminal justice, cults and — seriously — deviant behavior.

Gary Maynard, arsonist

USFS agents started their investigation of him and his activities back in July of 2021 after the Cascade Fire was reported on the slopes of Mt. Shasta; an investigator found Maynard underneath his black Kia Soul, which was stuck in a ditch with its undercarriage high-centered. A second fire took off on Mt. Shasta the next day, and investigators found tire tracks similar to those of the Kia. They set a tracking device under Maynard’s Kia in August, which recorded his travel  to the area where the Ranch and Conard fires started on the Lassen National Forest.

As part of his plea, Maynard also agreed Thursday to pay up to $500,000 in restitution to the federal government.

~ Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to Jim. 

PG&E reaches settlements with 6 counties for Kincade and Dixie Fires

Will pay $55 million and avoids criminal charges

Kincade Fire map, final, November 9, 2019
Kincade Fire map, final, November 9, 2019.

Pacific Gas and Electric reached an agreement Monday with six Northern California Counties to avoid criminal charges for the company’s role in igniting two very large destructive wildfires, the 2021 Dixie Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire. The settlement means the district attorneys in the six counties will not pursue criminal charges against the company, or if they have already been filed, will be dismissed.

The Dixie Fire burned on the Plumas National Forest, Lassen National Forest, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and across five counties: Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta and Tehama. The Kincade Fire was in Sonoma County.

The agreements with the counties does not prevent the US Attorney from filing criminal charges for the Dixie Fire. Nor does it prevent civil litigation from property owners. The Sacramento Bee reported that PG&E said it expects liabilities from the Kincade Fire to reach $800 million and the Dixie Fire to be $1.15 billion.

The Dixie and Kincade Fires, caused by PG&E power lines, burned 963,000 and 77,758 acres respectively.

In the settlement PG&E agreed to pay $55 million over a five year period. About $35 million will go to local organizations, volunteer fire departments, local schools, Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, fire safe councils, and other non-profits. The company will pay a $7.5 million civil penalty to Sonoma County related to the Kincade Fire and a $1 million civil penalty to each of the five North Valley counties related to the Dixie Fire. PG&E said they will not seek recovery of these costs from customers.

Details of some of the payments, according to PG&E, include:

Wildfire Safety

  • Local Safety Workforce: Adding 80-100 new PG&E jobs based in Sonoma County, as well as 80-100 more positions collectively across Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta and Tehama counties. These new positions will increase PG&E’s local expertise and presence focused on completing critical safety work in these communities.
  • Local Inspection and Work Commitments: Executing specific safety work and inspections in the six counties including commitments to carry out vegetation management and equipment inspections, which will be reviewed and verified by the independent monitor.

Local Community College Partnerships

  • Fire Technology Training Program: Committing to work collaboratively with Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) on efforts to expand and enhance the College’s Fire Technology Program of the Public Safety Training Center, including providing funding and sharing PG&E wildfire safety know-how and learnings. The company also will provide funding to campuses in the six counties which, at the discretion of the colleges, can be used for site acquisition and development, equipment purchases, and developing and implementing fire technology program curriculum.
  • Vegetation Management Training Program: Providing funding and assisting in the creation of new utility vegetation management training programs at SRJC and several campuses across the North Valley. These programs will be modeled after coursework that debuted at Butte College in 2020.

Direct Payment Program to Accelerate Community Recovery

  • PG&E will launch a new Direct Payments for Community Recovery program with an online tool where individuals whose homes were destroyed by the Dixie Fire can submit claims for expedited review, approval and payment. PG&E will verify the claims and make offers based on an objective, predetermined calculation. Claimants who accept the offers will receive payment, typically within 30 days of accepting an offer and within 75 days of first submitting a complete claim. PG&E has also agreed to provide in-person and telephone customer support centers to navigate this new program.
Firefighters on the Dixie Fire
Firefighters on the Dixie Fire, Strike Team 9163G. CAL FIRE photo.

More details emerge about death of Marcus Pacheco who was assigned on the Dixie Fire

He contracted COVID-19 on the Dixie Fire, tested positive there, and died three days later

Marcus Pacheco, Assistant Fire Engine Operator for the Lassen National Forest in California, with his three daughters. He passed away September 2, 2021 after testing positive for COVID-19 on the Dixie Fire.

More information has come to light about the death of US Forest Service firefighter Marcus Pacheco who died September 2, 2021 after working on the Dixie Fire in California. For weeks after the fatality the FS would only say that he died of an unspecified illness. As far as we can tell the agency never issued a formal, complete, accurate announcement of the death, unlike other line of duty deaths.

On October 29, 2021 the US Fire Administration, which tracks firefighter fatalities, issued a notice confirming that Mr. Pacheco had close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual while he was assigned to the Dixie Fire August 10 through 29, 2021. He tested positive on August 29 and passed away due to complications from the virus on Sept. 2, 2021.

Marcus Pacheco fatality notification
Marcus Pacheco fatality notification. US Fire Administration, October 29, 2021.

After an internet search we found information about Mr. Pacheco’s death on an obscure US Forest Service web page, “Inside the FS,” which said he died “due to COVID-19 on Sept. 2 after returning home from the Dixie Fire.” It did not include the facts that he was exposed and tested positive while assigned to the fire, which makes it a line of duty death. The page was published September 15, 2021 according to the embedded meta information.

Marcus Pacheco
Marcus Pacheco, Assistant Fire Engine Operator for the Lassen National Forest, in California. He passed away September 2, 2021.

On September 7 Anthony Scardina, Deputy California California Region Forester for State and Private Forestry, told Wildfire Today about his policy for releasing information about firefighters who die in the line of duty after contracting COVID-19. We had asked him about the deaths of Mr. Pacheco and also Allen Johnson, a semi-retired 40-year FS veteran who passed away approximately August 31 after contracting COVID-19 on the French Fire.

“I’m not going to report fatalities of our employees when it comes to personal illnesses and other privacy matters in terms of deaths at this point in time,” he said.  “We’re taking a look at those situations, what the review process will be to make sure we understand the facts. And it’s just simply too early out of respect for the family of being appropriate for us to comment at this point in time on those situations.

Below is a biography of Mr. Pacheco found on a memorial page.

Marcus was an Assistant Fire Engine Operator with the USDA Forest Service. He started his firefighting career working for the California Department of Forestry in 1988 in the small northern California town of Bieber where he met his wife Gwen. During his time with the California Department of Forestry (also known as CAL Fire) he worked at many stations including Bieber, Happy Camp, Alturas, Deer Springs, Garden Valley, and Forest Ranch. After trying out a few other jobs including being a garbage collector, being a camp caretaker, doing highway maintenance for CALTRANS (which included driving a snowplow), and driving school buses, he started working for the Forest Service in 2001 as a seasonal firefighter and received his permanent appointment in May 2005.

Marcus was father to three girls and was active in many other youth focused organizations in Susanville including the Girl Scouts, Campfire, Toys for Tots, Susanville Youth Softball, Boy Scouts (he was an Eagle Scout), and the annual Children’s Fair. Marcus was an active member of the Susanville community. He could often be found at the top of the tall ladders changing the lights for local theater productions, working as security at the Lassen County Fair, or helping serve pancake breakfast at the local Masonic Lodge. He volunteered for several volunteer fire departments including Susan River, Lake Forest and Standish-Litchfield. He was also a 20-year member of the Lassen County Search and Rescue team. Marcus was continually working to improve his skills as a wildland firefighter by getting his EMT certification, his State Fire Marshall I and II certifications, and attending as many courses and training opportunities as possible.

He leaves behind wife Gwen, mother, two brothers and three daughters.

Marcus Pacheco
Marcus Pacheco

Two water tender operators on the Dixie Fire died of COVID-19

Jose T. Calderon and Cessar Saenz, both of San Diego County

Jose T. Calderon
Jose T. Calderon

Two water tender operators have died of COVID-19 this month. They both worked for Brenda’s Fire Water based in Ramona, California. Two trucks with three drivers were dispatched from the company to the Dixie Fire in Northern California. They worked shifts to keep the water tenders working on the fire as much as possible.

Jose T. Calderon of Chula Vista California had spent much of his adult life driving virtually all types of trucks. He was the first of the two to die. On August 11 after 14 days of employment with the company and testing positive for COVID, he was taken from the west zone of the Dixie Fire to a hospital in Redding. He spent three weeks on a ventilator before passing away there September 5.

A family member told Wildfire Today that Jose’s death certificate listed the cause of death as respiratory failure, COVID-19, and smoke inhalation.

After Jose went to the hospital, his co-worker Cessar Saenz of El Cajon, California tested positive for COVID at the Dixie Fire and went home. When his symptoms worsened he was admitted to Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California. About three or four weeks later he died on September 14. He had just turned 63 two weeks earlier.

Cessar Saenz
Cessar Saenz. Posted on his Facebook page Feb. 13, 2021.

On July 25 he changed his employment status on Facebook to “Started New Job at Happily Retired” and was planning on moving to Texas.

Cessar drove water tenders on fires off and on since 2001. John Clark thought of Cessar not just as a good friend, but like a brother. He said Cessar liked to ride his motorcycle, fish, and camp. Cessar had been a truck and charter bus driver for decades and for eight years drove a mobile clinic out of Alpine, California to seven Tribal Reservations for the Southern Indian Health Council. He also taught people how to drive school busses.

Brenda Dahl of Brenda’s Fire Water confirmed the deaths of Jose and Cessar, but declined to provide any additional information. Neither the US Forest Service or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded to multiple inquiries about these line of duty deaths. As far as we know there has been no official announcement from a fire agency about the passing of these two firefighters. The water tenders were under a call when needed contract with one of the two agencies.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families, friends, and co-workers of Jose and Cessar.

Before COVID, the line of duty deaths of contractors on wildfires was always announced and their service was honored even though they are not regular government employees. It is not clear why the FS and CAL FIRE now feel the need to cover up fatalities on fires. I can remember when reports were written and lessons were learned from serious accidents and fatalities in the line duty. Is the problem that there are now too many to document and they are offloading that duty to journalists?

Putting your head in the sand is rarely a successful strategy.

Update on Northern California’s Dixie Fire

The fire has burned 960,470 acres

2:22 p.m. PDT Sept. 14, 2021

Dixie Fire 9-14-2021
Dixie Fire map September 14, 2021

The Dixie Fire that started on Tuesday, July 13 has now burned 960,470 acres. Minimal fire activity is occurring but with some increase in visible smoke as the weather continues to become warmer and drier. The incident management team reported that unburned interior islands of vegetation near the line continue to flare up and present control issues due to a limited number of firefighting resources.

Nearly all of the perimeter has established fireline. There are a few relatively small stretches where it does not exist according to the September 14 map prepared by the Incident Management Team. But it is possible that it is not needed in all of those locations.

A satellite overflight at 2:29 a.m. PDT September 14 found few large heat sources. However from hundreds of miles above the Earth the sensors on the satellite can’t detect small heat sources that firefighters on the ground could easily see, or during the later stages of mopup, feel with the back of their hand as they try to extinguish every hot spot within hundreds of feet of the fireline.

Dixie Fire map, northwest side, September 14, 2021.
Dixie Fire map, northwest side, September 14, 2021.

Lightning and showers hit parts of California, Oregon, and Nevada

9:43 a.m. PDT Sept. 10, 2021

Lighting, 24 hour period
Lightning during the 24-hour period ending at 6:44 a.m. PDT Sept. 10, 2021. The red strikes are the most recent.

Lightning, strong winds, and showers moved into California, Nevada, and Oregon Thursday afternoon. Friday morning at about 7 a.m. the National Weather Service reported approximately 1,100 ground strikes had occurred in California.

David Swain lightning

Most of Northern California and Central Oregon received at least a small amount of rain. While some weather stations recorded none or less than 0.05″ others measured more than 0.25″.

Precipitation, Western US, 24 hours
Precipitation, Western US, 24 hours ending at 7:10 am PDT Sept. 10, 2021.

All of the precipitation amounts below are for the 24-hour period ending at 7:10 a.m. PDT Sept. 10.

Maps of precipitation in California and Oregon–

Precipitation, Northern California, 24 hours
Precipitation, Northern California, 24 hours ending at 7:10 am PDT Sept. 10, 2021.
Precipitation, Oregon, 24 hours
Precipitation, Oregon, 24 hours ending at 7:10 am PDT Sept. 10, 2021

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