DA won’t file charges in Tea Fire case

Rhys Alvarado and Kenny Lindberg

The District Attorney’s office for Santa Barbara County has concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to charge anyone with starting the Tea Fire, ending a 3-month long investigation.

It was originally believed that 10 college-age individuals attending City College were responsible. However officials cannot link beyond a reasonable doubt that they in fact are to blame.

“It is the ethical and legal responsibility of the District Attorney’s Office to prosecute only those cases where proof beyond a reasonable doubt exists,” the District Attorney’s office said in a press release to The Channels. “Therefore, the ten individuals cannot be criminally charged with starting the Tea Fire.

The Tea fire started Nov. 13, in the 700 block of East Mountain Drive, and burned 1,940 acres of land. The blaze also destroyed 210 homes, damaged nine, and cost approximately $5.7 million to contain. Two citizens were seriously injured as a result of the fire, and many had to evacuate their homes.

The Tea fire started around 5:45 p.m., nearly 14 hours after the campfire is thought to have been put out by the college-age individuals.

“During the twelve to fourteen hour period from when the campfire was purportedly put out to when the Tea Fire began, numerous citizens reported seeing persons or vehicles in the vicinity of the Tea Gardens who they believed were responsible for starting the fire,” the statement continued. “This information was subject to intense scrutiny by personal from the District Attorney’s Office, Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department.

“In the course of the investigation, dozens of persons were interviewed and re-interviewed. We have carefully and thoroughly analyzed all the evidence.”

The 10 individuals will be charged with misdemeanors for trespassing and unlawfully building and using a campfire without the permission of the owner of the Tea Gardens property.

No additional charges in connection with the Tea Fire will be pursued by the District Attorney’s office.

The names of the ten individuals will be released as soon as the misdemeanor charges have been filed, which are expected shortly.

“Whether the evidence would be sufficient to meet the much lower burden of proof in any possible civil action is beyond the scope of our mandate and we therefore express no opinion on that issue,” the statement continued.

The District Attorney’s office also maintained that no special treatment was granted to the college-age individuals in not releasing their names earlier. It was done to protect the integrity of the investigation and not compromise sources, all standard procedure for criminal investigations.