Thursday, December 11, 2008

Although Flames Are Out, Many Residents Are Still Fired Up

It's been over three weeks since the Tea Fire was put out. Still smoldering is the anger that many locals harbor against the 9 or 10 yet-to-be-named Santa Barbara City College students who are being investigated for starting the fire.

In letters to the editor and comments left on blogs and websites, people are demanding that the students' identities be revealed.

But hold your horses. Santa Barbara didn't burn down in a day, don't expect the investigation to be wrapped up that quickly either.

Arson is one of the toughest crimes to solve, after all, more often than not, your best evidence has burned up. With 10 college students involved, some who may have done something and some who may have merely been present, it won't be easy to figure out who did what and when they did it. Until the investigators determine how the fire started and whether anyone can be charged with any crime, they won't be dropping any names.

(By the way, you'll notice I haven't referred to any of the City College students as a "suspect." "Suspect" is so 20th century. Instead, we have "persons of interest." And if you're wondering what's behind the change in nomenclature, just remember how NBC News called security guard Richard Jewel, a "suspect" in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and ended up paying him half a million dollars for being wrong about it. No one's been called a "suspect" since.)

The investigation could easily end with no one being charged with anything. Don't believe that's possible? Think back to the Painted Cave Fire in 1990. Authorities theorized that Leonard Ross started the fire as the ultimate act in a dispute he was having with one of his Old San Marcos Road neighbors. Then District Attorney Tom Sneddon felt there wasn't sufficient evidence to convince a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Ross was the culprit. So Ross was never charged with a crime. That's despite the fact that Ross appeared to have a motive and was the sole "person of interest."

Eventually the County would sue Ross civilly to recover its expenses in fighting the fire. In 2000, a jury awarded the county $2.75 million in damages. The county was only able to collect a portion of it when 40 acres of land Ross owned was auctioned off for $380,000.

Of course, unless they have a trust fund, the typical City College student doesn't figure to have any assets available to satisfy a judgment should any of the fire victims sue. And no, their parents can't be held financially responsible if the students are over 18 and therefore are adults.

So, be patient. And prepare to be disappointed.

* * *

Anyone who wants to channel their post-fire outrage into positive energy, might consider making a contribution to the Lance and Carla Hoffman Burn Fund at any branch of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust.

And this Sunday, December 14 from 3-5 pm there is a fundraiser at Music Academy of the West in Montecito to raise replacement funds for the Santa Barbara Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Santa Barbara Humane Society following their work on the Tea Fire. The concert features world-renowned composer/pianist Carter Larsen. Every dollar of the $50 entrance fee per person will go to and be split between the two non-profits so they can be better prepared to jump in and assist when the next disaster hits.