One of the worst wildfires in California history was blamed on a homeowner’s poorly rigged electrical connection to a hot tub Wednesday.
Wrapping up an 11-month investigation, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the deadly Valley Fire that roared through Lake County last fall was sparked by a faulty do-it-yourself electrical connection, set up to power an outdoor hot tub in the tiny community of Cobb. Investigators said the blaze, which killed four people and chewed through 76,000 acres, did comparatively little damage to the homeowner’s property.
Speaking outside Cal Fire’s station in Middletown, one of many Lake County communities still struggling to recover from the effects of the fire, agency director Ken Pimlott said the matter is being referred to the Lake County District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution. But he and District Attorney Donald Anderson said it’s far from certain if charges will be brought.
“Whether it’s civil, whether it’s criminal, those questions are all being asked,” Pimlott said.
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In a 56-page report, Cal Fire investigators said the fire started the afternoon of Sept. 12 outside a home on High Valley Road in Cobb, a town of 1,700 a few miles south of the Clear Lake resort area. An electrical connection linked to a hot tub overheated and caused dry grass and leaf litter to catch fire.
The homeowner, John Pinch, acknowledged to investigators that he installed the circuitry about a year before the fire, according to the report. The report said the connection wasn’t up to code and badly overheated. The report added that the hot tub hadn’t worked for several months.
“The temperature at the electrical connection was at least 1,981 degrees … as the copper wire was melted,” investigators wrote.
“There were no other plausible causes for this fire,” they added.
Contacted by The Sacramento Bee, Pinch said he isn’t convinced the electrical connection caused the fire.
“Whether it was caused by the wiring is still in question,” said Pinch, 65. “None of us were here when the fire broke out so we don’t know what happened. … I haven’t seen the (Cal Fire) report or the evidence.”
Residents said they were stunned to hear of Cal Fire’s conclusions.
“It’s like the Chicago fire that the cow started,” said Voris Brumfield, a pastor who lives in nearby Anderson Springs. She was referring to the legend of a cow kicking over a lantern and igniting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Brumfield, 68, who lost a friend in the fire, called the news “heartbreaking” and added: “That’s the reason why we have building codes and electrical codes, and why you need to get permits to do things and why it needs to be approved.”
In the Bee interview, Pinch said he has “tremendous sympathy for all of the people who were affected. … We’re devastated by the whole thing.”
The Cal Fire report said Pinch and his wife, Cindy, co-own the property with another couple, Parker and Laura Mills, but investigators said it was the wiring job performed by John Pinch that was to blame for the fire.
The investigative report shows Cal Fire zeroed in on Pinch’s home quickly. Speaking with Pinch four days after the fire started, investigator Michael Thompson said officials were “pretty positive” the fire began on his property, according to a transcript.
“Do you have any idea where it started?” Pinch asked him.
“We’re working on determining that cause,” Thompson replied.
Much of the half-hour interview was spent discussing the outdoor electrical circuitry. Pinch told the investigator he performed electrical work on the house himself “if it’s very simple” but otherwise would hire someone.
Pinch, who told investigators he’s a retired painting contractor who relocated from Sebastapol, said Wednesday he hasn’t hired a defense lawyer yet.
Anderson, the district attorney, said it could take a while for his investigative staff to determine whether a crime has been committed. Prosecutors would have to go “beyond negligence” and prove that a defendant committed “gross negligence or recklessness,” Anderson said.
Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin pleaded with area residents to be patient. “We are compassionate, we share in your feelings and urge that we need to allow the process to take place,” he said at the Wednesday news conference. “There’s going to be some additional time required to make sure this is handled properly.”
Pimlott said investigators sifted through hundreds of leads and struggled with the complexity of the fire. “Fire consumes evidence, so it takes a lot of work to sort through that,” he said. “This fire, it was moving in several directions.”
He said the High Valley Road home suffered some structural damage in the fire but wasn’t destroyed. The two-story home was built in 2007, according to the investigators’ report.
The Valley Fire roared through Lake County, and portions of Napa and Sonoma counties during one of the state’s worst wildfire seasons on record. It was one of two major fires that riveted Northern California simultaneously, along with the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties.
Of all the fires last year, the Valley blaze was the worst. It consumed 76,067 acres, killed four people and leveled 1,280 homes. It was the fifth most expensive fire in California history, according to insurance officials, with at least $1.5 billion in property damage. An estimated $921 million was covered by insurance, leaving more than a half-billion dollars of uninsured damage, adding to the economic horror caused by the blaze.
Among the properties that were destroyed were a few tourist attractions, including Harbin Hot Springs, a New Age retreat in Middletown, and Hoberg’s Resort Spa. Officials said the fire was particularly devastating because Lake County was already struggling with comparatively high unemployment.
Earlier, state fire officials determined that the Butte Fire was caused when a poorly maintained pine tree leaned into a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power line. In April the state said it would bill PG&E more than $90 million for the cost of fighting the fire. PG&E has estimated that its total liability from the fire could exceed $400 million, including property damage. The fire burned about 71,000 acres.
The Tunnel Fire in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills in 1991 remains California’s worst ever, causing $2.7 billion in inflation-adjusted losses.