California has had a truly awful year.
The ravages of Covid-19 continue to decimate the state’s economy and overwhelm healthcare providers. Though losses from the pandemic alone are more than enough to classify 2020 as historically terrible territory for the Golden State, one must also factor in what’s been happening on an environmental level as well.
In the past several years, the idea of California as a hotbed for devastating wildfires has quickly come to be accepted as a matter of fact by those who still fail to understand just how much worse things could get. A patchwork of public utilities run amok, suburban sprawl, and climate change have all contributed to the situation residents of the state now find themselves in.
Unfortunately, in at least one case, humans’ mistreatment of nature is apparently not the cause.
On Oct. 30, the Mercury News reported that a man associated with an illegal cannabis grow had confessed in court to intentionally starting what is now known as the Dolan Fire. To date, “the Dolan fire has burned 124,924 acres and destroyed 14 homes since it started August 18.”
Since the blaze was ignited, local sheriffs and other law enforcement authorities have searched for the cause of the flames. That cause now has a name: 30-year-old Ivan Gomez.
“According to investigators,” the paper noted, “Gomez admitted to starting the fire with a Bic lighter. But Gomez’s attorney pointed out that without his client’s alleged confession prosecutors could make no direct connection to Gomez and the fire.”
Prosecutor Meredith Sillman had a rather different assessment of the information presented in court.
“He was found with lighters on his person,” Sillman said. “[He] was in a remote area, he was in the area to start the fire. I think all of the circumstantial evidence around and in addition to his statements showed that he had started this fire.”
That circumstantial evidence only makes this case all the more sordid.
For starters, investigators suspect Gomez took part in an illegal cannabis grow that was located not far from where the Dolan fire originated.
Allegedly host to 1,500 plants and believed to be a multi-person operation, the grow site was also where emergency crews and firefighters say Gomez hurled rocks at them when they arrived to fight the blaze. Far from being the juvenile actions of a petty criminal, the Mercury notes that, in the early stages of the fire, “a crew of nearly a dozen firefighters were overcome by flames and had to deploy their emergency shelters. One firefighter was seriously burned.”
There is thus a lot of Dolan-related carnage to answer for.
According to the paper, Gomez has “also claimed to have killed several people at the pot camp.”
If setting an intentional fire during the worst wildfire season in California’s history, throwing rocks at those who responded to help, and being suspected of multiple homicides somehow isn’t bad enough, there’s also the matter of the missing condors.
As the Mercury News detailed, lead investigator Bryon Hoskins of the Monterey County sheriff’s department testified that “11 condors that had tracking devices are unaccounted for and it’s unknown if they perished in the fire.”
Now the folks at PETA are also getting involved, having reportedly sent a letter to Monterey County district attorney Jeannine Pacioni urging the DA to file animal cruelty charges against Gomez “for any wildlife that may have died as a result of his alleged actions.”
Part of the reason for the uncertainty surrounding both the condors and Gomez’s homicide claims is the fact that the area ravaged by the Dolan Fire has been difficult to access, which has subsequently slowed investigatory efforts to piece what happened together. For now, Gomez has been charged with the following: six felony counts of aggravated arson, arson of a structure or forest, arson causing injury to a firefighter, throwing objects at a vehicle and cultivation of marijuana.
According to the Mercury News, “a conviction on the aggravated arson charge alone could land Gomez in prison for life.”
The next major development in the story will likely arrive on Dec. 16, when Gomez is scheduled to be arraigned on the above charges. Additional charges related to the condors or other crimes may indeed be added, but given Gomez’s preliminary hearing judge, Pam Butler, has already ordered the defendant to stand trial on all current charges, they may prove redundant.