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Sheriff Says 10 People Thought to be Responsible for Tea Fire

A multiagency probe and an anonymous tip leads investigators to a Tea House bonfire the night before the blaze started.

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Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, with Matt Jenkins of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, describes the multiagency investigation of the Tea Fire. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

Ten young adults are believed to be responsible for the $5 million Tea Fire, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told a hastily arranged news conference late Tuesday afternoon.

“Today’s developments certainly do not resolve this terrible tragedy, but they do provide us with the answer as to how the fire started,” Brown said in announcing the findings of the investigation into the devastating blaze that burned 2,000 acres in the western Montecito foothills, upper Sycamore Canyon and Rattlesnake Canyon.

One death has been linked indirectly to the fire and there have been a score of injuries, including three critical burn injuries. The fire destroyed 210 homes, burned through the Westmont College campus and left the renowned Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery in ruins.

According to Brown, the individuals, local men and women ages 18-22, had built a bonfire late in the evening on Nov. 12, by a wall in the Tea Garden, a popular hangout spot located in the 700 block of East Mountain Drive just northwest of the Westmont campus. They left the area between 3 and 5 a.m. Thursday but apparently failed to put out the fire completely.

“It is not uncommon for fires of this type to smolder and have ignition potential for several days,” Brown said. “Due to the weather conditions Thursday, the fire reignited.”

By Thursday evening, the fire was raging, propelled by winds gusting to 70 mph and accelerated by temperatures in the upper 80s.

The individuals deemed responsible for the fire were found as a result of a multiagency investigation with the cooperation of the Sheriff’s Department, the county Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Ventura County Fire Department. A critical lead through the Sheriff’s Department anonymous tip line led to the discovery of the 10 individuals thought to be responsible for the blaze. Officials have declined to name the individuals, as the investigation is ongoing.

At this time, Brown said, the cause of the fire is not thought to be of malicious intent, and the individuals involved have been cooperative. They are associated with a school, said Brown, who declined to identify which school, or whether it might be Westmont.

Reports will be filed with the District Attorney’s Office early next week, and the DA will determine whether criminal charges will be filed in the case. Charges, if any, would be related to negligence as opposed to criminal intent, Brown said.

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