Arson suspected in Sundance Fire

According to Madera County District Attorney David Linn, two teenagers are suspected of starting the 13-acre Sundance Fire, which erupted near Deadwood Mountain south of Oakhurst, Sunday afternoon, Sept. 13.

The official investigative Cal Fire report, written by Bernie Quinn, chief law enforcement for Cal Fire Madera-Mariposa-Merced unit, was turned in to the DA’s office this week.

It was learned during the initial investigation that two juveniles were lighting spray from aerosol cans, apparently shooting flames at each other, which ignited nearby dry vegetation.

Monday morning, Linn and investigator, David Engstrom, from the DA satellite office in Oakhurst, were on scene. Linn said, as far as he knows, this was not intentional, but highly negligent. If the Cal Fire report shows “gross negligence,” the DA’s office will ask probation to apprehend the two minors, and felony arson charges could be filed.

The fire started at 3:45 p.m., and its point of ignition is believed to be on Paulsen Lane off Highway 41, just south of Thornberry Road (420). The fire then jumped to the north side of 420, which is the entrance to Mudge Ranch.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for residents living on Snyder Court and Paulsen Lane. While residents were allowed to return to their homes late Sunday evening, Road 420 remained closed to through traffic until 6 a.m. Monday. Still, Cal Fire asks that the public stay out, if they have no need to be in the area.

Cal Fire crews were busy mopping and cutting down trees that were still burning at their tops, some of which were snapping off in bursts of wind.

Fire officials and Linn said homeowners near the start of the Sundance Fire saved their homes by having good defensible space around their property.

“I’m so proud of our crews,” Karen Guillemin-Kanawyer, Cal Fire fire prevention specialist, said, “and how they protected the structures. For us, the hot topic was the drone that flew over the fire at the exact time two spot fires started. We had to ground our aircraft because of this drone, which flew off towards Oakhurst. This impacted our ability to get to those spot fires, but the ground crew did an excellent job to stop the spot fires from growing.”

Linn said that if they can locate the drone operator, he/she would be subject to arrest for flying a drone over a fire.

“Ninety-five out of 100 fires are caused by humans,” Guillemin-Kanawyer added. “That doesn’t always mean they’re intentionally set, but the public needs to be super aware. Dragging a chain on the road, parking on the side of the road, weedeating, driving a quad, camping ... everything you do outside that causes heat can cause a fire. It’s up to the public how this fire season continues. If there were zero human-caused fires, we could deal with what Mother Nature throws us.”

Engines and crews from Cal Fire, and Madera County Fire Department stations responded to the fire, along with helicopters dropping water, and two tankers dropping fire retardant.

Anyone with information on the person operating the drone over the Sundance Fire is asked to contact the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, (559) 675-7770.