Coinciding with the near conclusion of the third large human-caused fire in Santa Barbara County in 15 months, U.S. Forest Service and Santa Barbara County Fire Department investigators announced that a 16-year-old has been arrested on arson charges associated with the Gap Fire. He was already in Juvenile Hall custody on unrelated charges.

The Gap Fire, which began July 1 of this year in the Los Padres National Forest in the area of Lizard’s Mouth above Goleta, burned 9,544 acres, costing more than $20 million to fight. The fire threatened hundreds of homes and residents along the South Coast as it was pushed by wind. It took nearly a month to fully contain the fire.

The arrest announcement comes on the same day that officials asked for information from the public relating to the start of the Tea Fire, which burned more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito. The cause of the Tea Fire is still under investigation, though investigators believe it was human-caused, having ruled out downed power lines or a severed gas line. The area of origin was described in a press release as “on East Mountain Drive between the Cold Springs Trailhead and the area known as ‘The Tea House.'” Only saying that the investigation has “progressed significantly,” investigators are asking for the public’s assistance in providing information. Investigators are focusing on individuals who may have entered the property late Wednesday night through early Thursday evening.

Details were slim regarding the Gap Fire arrest, with more to be forthcoming later, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow. The suspect is currently in the County Juvenile Detention Center in Santa Maria, and the District Attorney’s Office is expected to file charges.

Despite reports last week that the Gap Fire investigation had fizzled, the case had remained open and “The leads never stopped,” Iskow said. He encouraged residents with any information they think would be useful to investigators of the Tea Fire to call in. He also said that new techniques by investigators, teamed with diligence, have proven effective over the years. “When we say the cause is under investigation it doesn’t mean they don’t get solved, because they do,” he said.

Two workers who accidentally started the Zaca Fire while working on a Santa Ynez Valley property in July 2007 had felonies dropped from the list of charges they faced for causing that fire, the largest in county history.

Also today, coincidentally, Steven Emory Butcher, a transient, was sentenced in federal court for starting a fire that consumed 162,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest in 2006. The Day Fire burned a vast amount of land in Ventura County. Butcher was given 45 months in prison and a $102 million fine. The jury that convicted Butcher also found him guilty of starting the Ellis Fire, which burned 70 acres in 2002. In both instances, he was convicted of felony burning of debris in the national forest.


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