USA – The Creek Fire destroyed 853 structures, most of them homes, and damaged another 64. It burned for nearly four months and consumed 379,895 acres of Sierra National Forest northeast of Fresno.
It cost $200 million to put out, and when property damages are added in, it will be a $500 million blaze.
It is the largest single-source fire in California history.
And yet, Thursday marked six months after the fire began on Sept. 4, and incredibly, the U.S. Forest Service still has not said what caused the blaze.
“After checking in on the status I was briefed that the investigation is still ongoing with our law enforcement branch. I will alert you to the findings as soon as it becomes available.” So said Randy Moore, regional forester for the Pacific Southwest region, including Sierra National Forest.
Ah, the investigation … into what? Absent any sort of even basic information from the Forest Service, people in the mountain communities most impacted — Shaver Lake, Big Creek, North Fork and Huntington Lake — have been left to speculate for themselves.
One rumor going around is that it was a pot-growing operation that led to the flames at the fire’s origin in a rugged spot in Big Creek Canyon. Or, it was law enforcement officers who lit confiscated marijuana plants on fire, and that got out of control.
Other rumors: an escaped campfire or arson by anti-fascist protesters.
Such crazy ideas persist, and even take on a life of their own, because of the Forest Service’s silence. One only has to go online and look up the incident web page to read: “Cause: under investigation.”
Six months, 853 structures, and $200 million later, that’s not good enough.
The passing of the seasons makes it clear: The fire began on summer’s last holiday, became a monster blaze throughout the autumn, was not contained until the start of winter snows in late December, and continues to remain devoid of a cause as spring nears in mere weeks.
Not yet able to state the cause? Forest Service, that’s not good enough.
SEARCHING FOR THE CAUSE
The combination of the rumors and lack of specifics led The Bee’s columnist, Marek Warszawski, to undertake the arduous hike down the canyon recently to the very spot where the fire began with Bee visual journalist Eric Paul Zamora and Auberry logger Tim Messer.
There they found the owner of Cressman’s Store with two friends. Ty Gillette lost the store to the blaze; his buddies’ homes burned down.
What were they doing? Digging for roots at the suspected pot garden. They planned to send any finds to a lab for testing.
“That’s what this is about,” Gillette said. “Trying to collect enough evidence to get somebody to talk.”
Let that sink in. In the absence of any information from the Forest Service, three men whose lives have been upended by the Creek Fire are now sifting through charred ground to find something, anything that might yield an answer as to how the blaze began.
That is beyond ridiculous. That is shameful.
FOREST SERVICE, ANSWER UP
Anyone who has lived in California for any length of time knows it takes investigators a while to piece together how a wildland fire starts. And, to be sure, there remain unknown causes to this day of other fires from 2020.
But of the top five blazes in California last year, only the Creek Fire has an undeclared cause.
If the Forest Service cannot yet say what started the blaze, how about saying what did not ignite it? Like, it was not a pot garden or law enforcement mistake or anti-fascist protesters. That would at least put the wild speculations to rest.
In short, an update briefing is badly needed to inform the public and improve transparency that has been nonexistent.
If the agency cannot do that, then the task falls to members of Congress to put the pressure on. The area burned by the fire is in Rep. Tom McClintock’s sprawling 4th District.
McClintock is a Republican. Jim Costa is a Democrat from Fresno.
The Bee asked McClintock and Costa if they had pressed the agency for the cause. Their response: the Forest Service is still investigating.
It is time for both McClintock and Costa to demand answers from the Forest Service. The cause of the Creek Fire is information that is owed to the residents of Fresno County.
The initial version of this editorial misstated what congressional committee has oversight of the U.S. Forest Service. The Agriculture Committee has oversight, of which Costa is a member.