The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office announced Friday it is done investigating the cause of the Tea Fire, and that the so-called “Tea Fire Ten” will face misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass and unlawfully building and using a campfire without the property owner’s permission, but the group won’t be facing charges for setting the fire.
There is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the campfire the Ten allegedly started at the Tea Gardens was the fire that later led to the Tea Fire, according to a press release from the District Attorney’s Office. Just days after the fire began, Sheriff Bill Brown and other investigating agencies, including the County Fire Department and CalFire, had held a press conference on the cause of the fire.
In that press conference, Brown had alleged that a group of 10 young people had held a campfire sometime the previous night or early into the morning of November 13. While an attempt had been made to put the fire out, he said, several hours later - at approximately 5:45 p.m. -Sundowner winds in the area had kicked up still hot embers and started the fire. And while there was evidence that fire did take place at the Tea Gardens, according to the DA’s Office, the evidence does not conclusively show that the campfire resulted in the start of the Tea Fire. However, District Attorney Christie Stanley said Friday afternoon there was “no evidence that we could uncover” that other fires were present that evening.
It has been 92 days since the fire began burning in the hills above Montecito and Santa Barbara, destroying 230 homes and forcing thousands of people to evacuate. The subsequent investigation into the matter was viewed as slow by many in the community who were frustrated that questions weren’t being answered and people weren’t being held accountable for the destruction the fire ultimately caused.
The statement from the DA’s Office addressed rumors and concerns that flowed on blogs and in email chains as to why it took so long to make an announcement. “This is standard investigation operational procedure for criminal investigations,” the statement read. “Any suggestion that those under investigation were receiving special treatment is simply untrue. In no instance has this office received pressure from any source to either protect the individuals or shield them from being known by the community.”
In his initial press conference shortly after the fire was contained, Brown announced that an investigation led to a group of 10 18- to 22-year-olds who had a bonfire at the Tea Gardens early in the morning on the day of the fire. Later in the same news conference, he added that the group was affiliated with a school, but declined to say which one. After rampant speculation, a statement from Santa Barbara City College President Andreea Serban confirmed that nine of the 10 involved in that bonfire were enrolled at the school.
“We are deeply saddened by this news and extend our heartfelt sympathies to all members of the community and their families who were affected by this tragedy,” Serban said in a statement at the time. “Our students, as with all college students, have personal lives outside of the college. We acknowledge these boundaries and do not oversee students’ personal activities away from campus.”
Despite today’s announcement, the names of the 10 still have not been released. It was unclear from the news release when they would be released. Assistant District Attorney Eric Hansen, who has handled media inquiries throughout the investigation period, told The Independent earlier this week that he hoped the department would name the 10 “before two weeks,” but that it could be up to a month.
The DA’s Office had seven of its top personnel investigating the matter, according to the release, including Stanley, Hanson, chief trial deputy Joshua Lynn, its chief investigator Dave Saunders, and three senior deputy district attorneys. The lead prosecutor for the case still hasn’t been determined, Stanley said.