Report: Burn pile, winds kicked up TRE fire
August 3, 2012
Wellington resident Kim Carlin was returning home from a dental appointment about 1:30 p.m. May 22 when she saw smoke and flames in her back yard coming from a burn pile she believed she and her son extinguished two days before.
Carlin had her mother call 911, and she, her adult son Steven Cozad, and two neighbors tried to put the fire out with a garden hose.
But it was too late.
Fueled by 18-32-mph winds, the Topaz Ranch Estates fire ultimately grew to 7,500 acres, destroying everything in its path including two homes, 17 outbuildings, boats, cars, motorcycles, and travel trailers.
Details of the fire are contained in a 92-page document used as the foundation for arrest warrants for Carlin, 56, and Cozad, 30.
They are charged with misdemeanor negligent failure to extinguish a fire, and face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted.
According to the report, Carlin and Cozad had a controlled burn May 20 on their property at 1221 Slate Road, and failed to properly extinguish the fire.
Shortly before 9 a.m. May 20, a neighbor called 911 because he thought the fire was out of control.
Five units from East Fork Fire District responded by 9:10 a.m. with six personnel.
According to the incident narrative, firefighters found a large control burn behind Carlin’s residence. Carlin had a valid burn permit, but the size of the burn pile – 10-feet-by-15-feet – was too big. Water was available from a nearby garden hose.
The on-scene fire captain said the pile had burned to a manageable size, so Carlin was advised to put a fuel break around the pile and she complied before the units left.
Carlin was told she could burn as long as she stayed within regulations, and had to extinguish the fire by noon. If she was found in violation, Carlin was warned she would be cited.
The units left after about 45 minutes, and did not return to the fire, according to the report.
Carlin told investigators she extinguished the fire with the hose by noon, and returned to the burn pile several times that day to rake the debris, and water it down.
She claimed the pile contained organic material, 4-by-4 pieces of lumber, black plastic bags containing grass, bags of newspapers and mail. She said she ignited the burn pile with a lighter and a piece of tree sap.
One of the neighbors who helped when the fire broke reignited that Tuesday said Cozad commented, “I swore I put that thing out.”
Neighbors interviewed immediately after the fire told investigators they believed firefighters called on May 20 put dirt or water on the fire, leaving some to question why they didn’t put it out.
On further questioning, witnesses modified their accounts that they never saw the firefighters actively working on the fire, but assumed they were because they heard what they believed were shovels scraping on the ground.
The on-scene fire captain reported that the primary task at the scene was investigation.
“No mutual/automatic aid was given or received,” he stated.
A state fire marshal’s investigator concluded after reviewing evidence, conducting interviews, reading statements and eliminating electrical power and lightning, that the fire originated from the residential burn pile.
“The burn pile was not extinguished properly by the homeowners. The fire smoldered in the burn pile until Tuesday, May 22, 2012, when high winds blew the smoldering embers into the dry flashy fuels. According to the home owner, she had arrived home from a dental appointment and found her back yard on fire. She tried to extinguish the fire with a garden hose, but due to the high winds, the fire spread too rapidly,” investigators said.
While determining the origin of the fire, an investigator observed a whiff of smoke coming from the edge of the burn pile. Even though the top 2 inches were damp, the temperature was 481.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Evidence at the burn pile indicated that the pile was smoldering and capable of ignition even after two days since the pile was initially burned,” according to the report.
Investigators found 33 substances in the burn pile including roofing material, a T-shirt, plastic, glass bottles, a windshield wiper, porcelain and burned paper. There was no indication in the report how long the site had been used to burn materials.
District Attorney Mark Jackson has said because criminal charges have been filed, officials are precluded from commenting on aspects of the investigation.
“These concerns, views and facts have been fully investigated and very well documented,” he said. “The duty and responsibility (for extinguishing the fire) is 100 percent on that homeowner to follow burn regulations and for full suppression.”
The report was prepared by investigators from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Nevada Fire Marshal’s Office and the federal Bureau of Land Management.
“Carlin was visibly distraught at the end of the interview and indicated that she was concerned that the fire may h ave started from her burn pile,” according to the BLM investigator.
Cost to fight the fire was estimated at $3.4 million. That does not include property and resource loss.
Douglas County Chief Deputy District Attorney Tom Gregory has asked victims to contact his office to report claims.
He said Carlin and Cozad were cooperative in the investigation and turned themselves in to authorities on Thursday. They are scheduled for arraignment Aug. 27.
Gregory said the $1,000 fine was set by statute.
“That’s what the law is,” he said. “It is punishable as a misdemeanor. In a theft, the amount of loss does drive the level of offense, but this offense doesn’t work that way.”
He said there was no evidence of arson or intent which would lead him to charge the crime as a felony.
Victims of the May 22 Topaz Ranch Estates fire are asked to contact the Douglas County District Attorney’s office at 782-9800 to report loss.