During the weekend, a woman who allegedly started the Fawn Fire in Shasta County while trying to boil water was charged with a count of felony arson committed during a state emergency.
According to the filed criminal complaint, Alexandra Souverneva was on her way hiking to Canada when, on September 22nd, she started a campfire near the town of Mountain Gate. Employees of a nearby quarry had initially warned her away, with Souverneva then trying to filter water she found in a puddle through a tea bag in order to clean the water before trying to boil the water to disinfect it instead.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
However, Souverneva then said that conditions were too wet to start a fire there, and after drinking the water anyway, left the area. Soon afterwards, Souverneva became stuck in some brush in the area and called the fire department for assistance out.
“She said that didn’t work so she attempted to make a fire to boil the water,” stated the complaint on Friday. “She stated it was too wet for the fire to start. She said she drank the water anyway and then continued walking uphill from the creek bed.”
While being treated for dehydration, she mentioned the fire she had attempted, which alerted Cal Fire to the growing new wildfire in the area she said she had been. Souverneva was then arrested, where authorities found on her, amongst other items, a cigarette lighter.
Two days later, Souverneva was brought before the Shasta County Superior Court in Redding, where she pleaded not guilty. Judge Adam Ryan set her bail at $150,000, $50,000 more than usual due to the felony count of arson tied to the case.
Prosecutors said on Friday that she may be linked to starting other fires in the area and that the County will go after anyone who starts a fire that grows out of control.
“We are aware that there are possible additional fires here in our county that she may be linked to as well as other charges in other fires, statewide,” said District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett at a later news conference. “My office will not hesitate to prosecute (any) person who either intentionally or recklessly starts a fire.”
Meanwhile, the Fawn Fire continued to rage past the weekend, causing Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency due to the fire burning thousands of acres, destroying homes, and forcing the evacuation of thousands. According to Cal Fire, as of Tuesday the Fawn Fire has burned through 8,577 acres and is currently at 65% containment.
Souverneva currently faces up to nine years in prison due to the enhanced felony arson during a state of emergency count, but this may be increased should the fire worsen and get out of containment.
Fawn Fire case may influence future decisions due to it being started during a state of emergency
The fire has caused many authorities and experts this week to reevaluate how individual wildfire starters are prosecuted due to he ambiguous nature of the crime.
“Counties are going after these people more and more, but it is getting trickier to find out if what they did was intentional or not,” explained LA-based environmental lawyer Mallory Jones to the Globe on Tuesday. “Natural causes like lightning, well, no one is to blame there legally. Now fires started by utility equipment, there’s a company behind that. But it’s never intentional. Negligent, yes, like in that huge Camp Fire suit against PG&E. But it’s always accidental.”
“When it comes down to individuals, like what is happening more and more, things get tricky because you need to prove that they did it and there was intent. Some are easy to determine, like the El Dorado Fire last year where it was started by some equipment from a gender reveal party. Those involved were charged with involuntary manslaughter instead of anything more serious because, by all accounts there, through numerous witnesses, it was accidental. The people charged even tried to put out the fire.”
“The Fawn Fire is the one that a lot of people are looking at this week. It’s just very odd the circumstances of it. Plus, we now need to figure out what we should do with these people. They start, or allegedly start, fires during droughts. They cost Californians millions of dollars in fire crew suppressing the blaze, not to mention the insurance costs and payouts, loss of life, loss of homes, and so many other human and financial factors.”
“This case, where someone allegedly started it during a state of emergency, will be held as the new standard in a way. We’ve had people coming to California intentionally starting fires, people starting fires nearby other fires, and all sorts of others. But this one is different. It was started during a state of emergency, but it is also not 100% her that did it. That’s why a lot of eyes are on this one. It began with the media interested because they thought she was initially trying to boil bear urine. But now it has grown to something much more.”