An officer with the Bureau of Land Management is suspected of accidentally starting last summer’s Chariot fire in East County’s Laguna Mountains, state fire officials say in a report released Thursday to U-T San Diego.
The fire consumed more than 7,000 acres and 149 structures in the Cleveland National Forest, including much of the historic Al Bahr Shriner’s camp.
The state report says the fire probably started when brush got caught in the undercarriage of a Jeep driven by BLM field Officer Jason Peters as he drove along the desert floor. It mentions another possibility — that a pickup truck spotted in the area that afternoon may have been the cause — but says no additional evidence was found to support that theory.
Peters — who initially said he didn’t arrive on the scene until after the blaze began — has refused to cooperate with investigators since the early days of the investigation, the report said.
The BLM conducted its own investigation into the incident, but is refusing to release the results. A BLM spokesman declined to comment Thursday on Peters’ status with the federal agency.
The most destructive wildfire in the county last year, the Chariot fire began July 6 and burned for more than a week before it was extinguished July 15. Almost all of the damage was done within a few hours on July 8 in the Shriner’s camp when the fire swept up a canyon and crossed Sunrise Highway.
The Shriners have already filed claims against the BLM based on the group’s own investigation, which concluded that Peters accidentally started the fire, and then apparently tried to conceal his involvement.
In a statement released Thursday, Shriner’s leader George Geanoulis said, “We all know that no information will restore our beloved camp, historic buildings, cherished homes and lost memories, but this … report will help us and our legal advisers navigate the future and what it may hold for Al Bahr Shrine Camp.”
The 318-page Cal Fire report, prepared by Capt. Kelly Gallaher, said the agency explored all possible causes of the fire, and eliminated all but two. A couple witnesses saw a pickup truck in the desert that day, but no further information could be developed about the truck or its occupant and no evidence was found indicating it was responsible.
The report suggests the more likely scenario is that “the fire originated from the vehicle driven by Jason Peters going through tall brush, either dropping burning brush into a receptive fuel bed, or a potential failed fuel line spreading fire on a receptive fuel bed.”
The document describes Peters under a section titled “suspect.”
The ramifications of the findings could be costly to the BLM. Damage caused to the Shriner’s camp was massive — in the millions of dollars — and the cost of fighting the fire, which began July 6 and wasn’t extinguished until July 15, exceeded $10 million for which the state could seek reimbursement.
The report details how Peters Jeep caught on fire in the parking lot of the Butterfield Ranch Campground the afternoon of July 6. Peters’ initial incident report is included in the Cal Fire report. In it, he says he saw smoke in the distance and went to investigate, at times driving over heavy brush. He then drove to the Butterfield Ranch store, parked his Jeep and went inside leaving the vehicle idling. When he came back outside his Jeep was on fire.
BLM Public Affairs Specialist Martha Maciel issued a statement Thursday evening that said:
“The Bureau of Land Management has been cooperating with Cal Fire on their investigation of the Chariot Fire and we appreciate their work in completing this complex investigation. We are reviewing the investigation report and working with the U.S. Department of Justice to establish a path forward. As a land management agency, one of our highest priorities is protecting human safety, property and resources and we will adhere to our core values of public service, integrity and accountability in any actions taken.”
She said by phone that the BLM couldn’t comment on its own internal investigation “concerning matters that are not releasable.”
The report says photographic and other evidence shows that the fire began in four separate areas on the desert floor separated by hundreds of feet. Three of the fires eventually burned together to create the Chariot fire.
On Tuesday, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, who was in San Diego for a wildfire awareness week news conference, said the BLM has cooperated fully with his department but that Peters, upon the advice of his attorney, “has not been made available to us.”
He said the results of the investigation will be presented to the appropriate authorities. “There are other processes going on on the federal side,” Pimlott said. “We are moving forward.”