Yesterday, after months of investigation, the District Attorney’s office released the names of the 10 individuals believed to be responsible for November’s wildly destructive Tea Fire.
The announcement came just days after District Attorney Christie Stanley told the public that the “Tea Fire ten” would not face criminal charges. Stanley said that the county Sheriff’s and Fire Departments, working with the DA’s office, could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a bonfire lit by the group ignited the Nov. 13 blaze.
The group consists of Mohammed Alessam, Joshua Grant Decker-Trinidad, Hope Sjohnet Dunlap, Fahad Al-Fadhel, Hashim Ali Hassan, Casey James Lamonte, Natalie Rose Maese, Carver William McLellan, Stephen Reid and Lauren Elizabeth Vazquez. The individuals will be charged with trespassing and failure to obtain a permit for a campfire – both of which are misdemeanor offenses.
Of the ten named, nine attend Santa Barbara City College, superintendent Andreea Serban confirmed last night in a press release.
The group will be arraigned on March 2 at the Santa Barbara Superior Court.
The Tea Fire was allegedly started after gale-force “sundowner” winds picked up embers from the aforementioned bonfire and deposited them on the parched vegetation above Montecito. The resulting blaze burned for days, destroyed 231 homes, seriously injured a young couple and cost the state and county millions of dollars. Additionally, the fire burned through Montecito’s Westmont College and gutted the Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery.
Relying on dozens of interviews as evidence, the Fire Dept. announced on Nov. 18 that a bonfire set by the ten individuals above was the likely cause of the fire. According to those reports, the ten young adults had made a bonfire between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. the night before, and had left believing the fire was completely put out. The gusty conditions and warm weather, however, combined to transform the few remaining embers into a wildfire, which by 6 p.m. was burning its way towards Montecito and Santa Barbara.
Despite the DA’s decision not to seek criminal charges, the group may still face severe civil penalties for their alleged involvement in the fire that ultimately burned 2,000 acres. As opposed to a criminal suit, any civil lawsuit would have to be filed by individuals affected by the Tea Fire and not the DA’s office. According to California law, those affected would have three years under the statute of limitations to sue for damages caused by the fire.
And in Santa Barbara County, where destructive wildfires are nothing new, such cases have been heard and damages have been paid.
In 1990, the man responsible for the Painted Cave Fire – which destroyed 427 homes, 11 public buildings and killed a 37-year-old woman in just two hours – was ordered to pay $2.75 million. Unlike the Tea Fire, however, the 1990 blaze was set intentionally, in an effort to burn out a neighbor.
According to the DA, the identities of the 10 had been kept confidential until yesterday to maintain the integrity of the investigation. After determining not to pursue any criminal case, the DA decided it was time to release the names.
None of the 10 individuals named could be reached for comment.