Nevada County fire origins still under investigation | TheUnion.com

Nevada County fire origins still under investigation

Investigation reports for the causes of the Lobo, McCourtney and Pleasant fires — the three largest in western Nevada County during 2017 — are unavailable to the public, according to Cal Fire, because those investigations are still ongoing.

Asked when that information might be available, Mary Eldridge, an information officer for Cal Fire's Nevada Yuba Placer Unit, said the answer is unclear.

"If you look at this from an investigator's perspective, they have to eliminate any other potential causes for a fire and narrow it down to a single cause. And often they do," she said, noting the process can be lengthy.

But sometimes, investigators are never able to identify a cause.

In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, investigators couldn't determine causes for 33 percent of fires in the coverage area for Cal Fire's Nevada Yuba Placer Unit, according to that unit's strategic fire plan.

The origins of the 454 fires that occurred in the unit's area during 2016 were varied, the report states.

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Seventeen percent — the next-most frequent cause after "undetermined" — were caused by debris catching fire, according to the fire plan. Thirteen percent were caused by "other" sources, which didn't fit into any category. Eleven percent were caused by equipment — including lawnmowers, weed-wackers and other machinery, according to Eldridge.

Other causes included lightning, campfires, smoking, vehicles, arson and power lines, among others.

Cal Fire Capt. John Hotchkiss, who is investigating the Pleasant Fire — which burned 392 acres near North San Juan in Sept. 2017 — said he's still working on that case. Hotchkiss couldn't disclose details about his inspection, he said.

Eventually, Hotchkiss said, if all active leads for the cause of a fire have been examined and a clear explanation can't be pinpointed, Cal Fire would flag the source of the fire as "undetermined," in effect closing the investigation.

None of the three largest western Nevada County fires have been given that distinction yet, according to Cal Fire's legal office in Sacramento.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email mpera@theunion.com or call 530-477-4231.