In the months since authorities linked the Tea Fire to 10 young adults and their ill-advised late-night bonfire, the public response has been ferocious.
Even before the district attorney’s office released the names of the 10 individuals suspected of accidentally starting the blaze last week, commentators on blogs and local newspaper sites frothed about the ‘botched investigation’ and the spoiled children who ignited the fire.
Now, with the names of the “Tea Fire 10” made public – and nine currently enrolled Santa Barbara City College students implicated – comments have ranged from inflammatory to racist, and many of the contributors have focused on the suspects’ age and status as community college students.
For the four-year tourists who call Santa Barbara home, the response is decidedly mixed.
SBCC first-year Ryan Thompson said he is concerned about the public’s reaction toward his school. However, Thompson said that he empathized with both the suspects and the hundreds of victims who lost their homes.
“It came pretty close to home to everyone who goes to SBCC,” he said. “Everyone could see the ashes, and everyone wanted to know who did it. But it sucks for [the suspects] to get harassed, and I think it just really shows how angry people are about the situation. It’s hard to expect anything else though.”
Whether the district attorney’s office should have released the names of the 10 suspects – who are facing misdemeanor charges for failing to obtain a campfire permit and trespassing – is a whole other issue for students.
“Though unintentional, what they did was stupid,” Rochelle Breedon, a first-year UCSB psychology major said. “I don’t know why they shouldn’t have to face the public they put in danger.”
Third-year UCSB art history major Elyssa Jackson disagrees. Jackson said she believes the names should not have been released to the general public for the suspects’ sake.
“They will have to face the backlash of the community,” she said. “People aren’t going to act like adults. I don’t think the names should have been released to the public, they should have been released to the people who had damages so they can sue.”
Second-year UCSB Russian major Renee Barr said that despite the risks, the individuals involved in the blaze that burned down 231 homes deserve to have their identities known.
“There’s going to be a lot of resentment towards those people from the community,” Barr said. “But I think it’s good they released the names – what they did was irresponsible. They ruined a lot of people’s lives.”
Online, the commentary has been less civil. Santa Barbara online news magazine www.edhat.com received comments with racial slurs that the website was forced to remove as soon as the ten names were released. One commenter even went so far as to post pictures, recovered from Facebook, of the named individuals.
Comments on the Santa Barbara Independent Web site include similar slurs on wealth and race, mixed with comments from SBCC employees and people personally affected by the fire.
With the vast majority of the perpetrators hailing from SBCC, some respondents worried that the community college’s reputation has taken a serious hit.
First-year SBCC student Jake McCollum said the link between the fire and the school’s name only served to deepen stereotypes that already plague the college.
“It definitely reinforced stereotypes about SBCC,” he said. “The obvious one’s that going to SBCC doesn’t carry the prestige that getting into a UC does. Or that if you go to SBCC you were one of ‘those kids’ in high school, really lazy or really slow.”
After months of investigation, the district attorney’s office, in collaboration with the sheriff’s and fire departments, could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the bonfire started by the “Tea Fire 10” was in fact the cause of the fire. Even so, some feel that the individuals should face more serious charges for the damages incurred by the fire, which burned nearly 2,000 acres.
“I think they should have been charged with criminal charges,” Jackson said. “I think a little misdemeanor slap on the wrist is not enough. It’s called being an adult.”
Still, the district attorney could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the bonfire started by the “Tea Fire 10” was in fact the start of the fire, Thompson noted.
“They’re innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around,” he said. “If they had definite proof then they should definitely get punished. But I’m sure they feel bad about it.”