When Captain Darrell Delgado, Investigator for Santa Barbara County Fire, asked me earlier this month if I knew anything about trail gnomes, I wondered if the calls coming in to the Anonymous Tip Line set up for the La Brea Fire had gone totally bizarre. It’s been just slightly over three months since the Jesusita Fire terrorized Santa Barbara residents, yet the investigation team still has few leads.
“We’re pretty sure from what we’ve found out so far,” Delgado tells me, “that there are people out there who know who started the fire, but it appears they’d rather circle the wagons than tell on a friend.” Over the period of several hours Captain Delgado and I go over the details of the investigation.
From the information Degado shares with me I gather the fire investigation has settled on the cause of the fire. “Without a doubt,” Delgdo says, “the fire was started by someone up here using power equipment to brush the trails at the wrong time in the wrong place using the wrong tools.”
Though he won’t say which group of trail users have been pinpointed as the potential culprits, it is clear that Delgado believes that the fire was started by a small group of users, perhaps two or three individuals, who were out to do a good deed. “We’re not talking about kids up partying and carelessly starting this fire or someone who lit it intentionally,” he tells me. “These are what we’ve heard called trail gnomes, a few individuals who’ve decided they don’t want to be a part of the organized trail volunteer programs sponsored by the Forest Service or are frustrated by the lack of work that seems to be getting done on the trails.”
What Delgado’s team had discovered on Day 2 of the Jesusita Fire – a Wednesday – was a long stretch of switchbacks just below the start point that had been carefully brushed out. The grasses had been cut on either side of the trail and there was evidence that the thicker chaparral brush had been cut back as well.
Having hiked the trail while following a hot shot crew around the west edge of the fire myself on the same day, it was clear to me as well that the work had been done using power equipment – and that it had been done in the last few days. My guess would be that one or more weed whackers had been used because the grass was cut evenly and scattered in a way could only be accomplished by the use of a high-speed metal blade like those that can be put on a weed eater.
My questions to Captain Delgado are most likely the ones that have come to everyone’s minds. If power tools were used, how come no one heard them? Or if they did, do you have descriptions of the people operating them. When the fire started, wouldn’t someone carrying them down the trail be easy to spot? While I didn’t get answers to these questions, from the tone of the discussion, my impression is that the investigators know enough to lead them to the right people to talk with but not enough to let them focus on anyone in particular.
“There are some pretty uncooperative individuals out there,” Delgado adds. “We know some of them can probably tells us who started the fire but they haven’t shown an inclination to do so yet.”
I talk with Delgado a few weeks later after Jesusita Fire had been contained, wondering if anything might have come up in the meantime. “Nope,” he answers. “I’m on this full time but we’re not any closer than we were three months ago.
Delgado then adds an interesting aside, “you know we’re starting to see a shift in fire patterns now. It used to be that almost all of these type fires were roadside related. Now they seems to be starting much further off them, people doing things out in the middle of nowhere that common sense would tell you not to.” My sentiments, precisely, though I’d put it a bit differently: way more people out there doing stupid things way too often.
Perhaps Delgado will end up solving this case the lucky way when someone finally picks up the phone and calls the tip in that nails those who started the Jesusita Fire. Perhaps those who actually were responsible will do it themselves.
What I am sure of is that we can’t have trail gnomes out there taking on the brush clearing whenever they want. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in organizations trained to do it right and through the proper agency process. There are too many things that can go wrong not to do it right. Just ask those who’ve lost so much in our last two front country fires.