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DA Won’t File Criminal Charges against 10 Linked to Tea Fire

Misdemeanor charges will be pursued but investigators conclude they can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the group was responsible for the blaze.

The Tea Fire left utter devastation behind, destroying 230 homes, a significant portion of the Westmont College campus and Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery.
The Tea Fire left utter devastation behind, destroying 230 homes, a significant portion of the Westmont College campus and Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

The 10 individuals linked to November’s devastating Tea Fire will not face criminal charges related to the wildfire, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office said Friday, but prosecutors will pursue misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass and unlawful building and use of an unauthorized campfire.

The announcement, which came on the three-month anniversary of the blaze, seems likely to reignite a fierce community debate over the names of the 10. Throughout the investigation, District Attorney Christie Stanley and her staff have been tight-lipped, fueling intense speculation about the identities, their possible connections and the reasons why the names have not been disclosed.

Stanley refuted such talk Friday.

“The sole reason was to protect the integrity of the investigation so as not to compromise or probably taint sources of information or the ability to corroborate information,” she said in a statement.

“Any suggestion that those under investigation were receiving special treatment is simply untrue. In no instance has this office received pressure from any source to either protect the individuals or shield them from being known by the community.”

According to Stanley, the names of the individuals are now public information and are on the documents filed with Santa Barbara County Superior Court. Those documents have not yet been released, however.

Amid temperatures in the 90s and gale-force sundowner winds, the Tea Fire sprang to life at the Tea Garden above East Mountain Drive in Montecito late on the afternoon of Nov. 13. By the time it was brought under control the next week, the fire had raged across 2,000 acres, destroying 230 homes in the western Montecito foothills, upper Sycamore Canyon and Rattlesnake Canyon. The fire burned through the Westmont College campus and left the renowned Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery in ruins. There were two serious injuries in the blaze, but no lives were lost.

In a hastily called news conference Nov. 18, Sheriff Bill Brown said the official investigation had yielded evidence that 10 young people, nine of whom were SBCC students, were at the fire’s point of origin the night before it started and had lit a bonfire. Brown said an attempt had been made to put the fire out, but the heat and aridity of the day, as well as sundowner winds, whipped the smoldering embers into a wildfire.

“There is evidence that a campfire occurred at the Tea Garden between midnight and 4 a.m. (the morning of Nov. 13),” Stanley’s statement said Friday. “However, the existing evidence does not establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt that this campfire in fact caused the Tea Fire.”

Investigators from the Sheriff’s Department, the county Fire Department, Cal Fire and the District Attorney’s Office, interviewed and re-interviewed dozens of people but could not establish beyond a reasonable doubt the connection between the individuals and the wildfire — or that other fires had been set during that time frame.

The 10 individuals, however, will be charged with misdemeanor counts of criminal trespass and unlawful building and using a campfire without the permission of the Tea Garden estate’s owner. The evidence may or may not be sufficient for civil action, but the District Attorney’s Office, finding it out if its scope, did not comment on that issue.

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