On Episode 204 of Unsolved with Steve Gregory, we sit down with United States Forest Service Captain Russel Tuttle. Tuttle is a 15-year veteran of the United States Forest Service, who has received numerous awards for his work and outstanding performance.

Captain Tuttle previously served in the United States Air Force as a heavy equipment mechanic and a teacher for over ten years.

This episode is part of Unsolved’s ongoing “Crime Fighter Series”. Captain Tuttle gives us insight on the 2014 “Colby Fire” that blazed across the Angeles National Fire.

Photo: United States Forest Service

The Colby Fire

On January 16th, 2014, the Colby Fire was reported at approximately 6 AM. The fire was burning along the Colby Truck Trail in the San Gabriel Mountains and quickly made its way across the Angeles National Forest. The fire burned approximately 2,000 acres across Federal, State, and Local jurisdictions. Six homes were destroyed, numerous others were damaged, and the cause of the fire was unknown at the time it began.

At the time of the fire, even though it was mid-January, there was unseasonably warm weather. The weather would trigger a Red Flag fire warning in effect with the Santa Ana wind conditions. A Wildland Fire Investigator from the Angeles National Forest conducted the Origin and Cause Determination and concluded that the Colby Fire had originated on National Forest System lands and that the cause of the fire was the result of embers from a campfire that caught surrounding brush on fire.

There was signage leading into the area stating that campfires and camping were prohibited in the area.

Steve Gregory explains why phos-chek is used to fight wildfires.

Thousands of residents in the surrounding areas were evacuated. While conducting evacuations of the local residential neighborhoods, Officer Miranda with the Glendora Police Department was informed by a local resident that two male subjects were running in the Flood Control wash, close to the 800 block of East Palm Avenue, Glendora, CA. Officer Miranda was able to locate the two subjects and determined that both subjects were running away from the general area of the fire’s origin. Officer Miranda noted that both had burnt ashes on their clothes and smelled of smoke. Officer Miranda placed the two subjects under arrest for suspicion of causing a forest fire.

Shortly after the Colby Fire began burning, United States Fire Prevention Technician Szlauko was driving on Glendora Mountain Road and saw a civilian in the area where Glendora Mountain Road intersects with the Colby Trail, in the proximity of the fire’s general origin area. FPT Szlauko provided him with a ride out of the hazardous area to the bottom of Glendora Mountain Road, where FPT Szlauko advised the Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy that was staffing the road closure that FPT Szlauko suspected that he was involved with the fire’s start. Subsequently, Officer Houser of the Glendora Police Department placed him under arrest for charges related to starting the Colby Fire.

The three subjects were interviewed multiple times giving conflicting details of their roles as it relates to starting the fire. After a number of interviews, one of the men stated that he wanted to come clean and would not cover for the others anymore. He fessed up and investigators learned that the three men had two illegal campfires along the Colby Trail. In the early morning hours of January 16, 2014, one of the suspects threw a notebook into the fire to keep it going. At that time, a gust of wind carried embers from the burning notebook into the surrounding brush and started the fire.

In addition to the damage caused by the fire, the cost of suppressing the fire alone was more than $6M.

The investigation, in this case, was conducted by the United States Forest Service, the Glendora Police Department, the Azusa Police Department, the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Arson/Fire Investigation Unit, and CAL FIRE. The investigation into the Colby Fire concluded that the fire had originated on National Forest System lands and that the cause of the fire was the result of embers from a campfire that caught surrounding brush on fire.

All three subjects, Clifford Henry Jr., Steven Aguirre, and Jonathan Jarrell were indicted by the Federal Grand Jury for charges related to the illegal campfire and causing the timber to burn.

The three men were eventually convicted; sentenced to federal prison and ordered to pay restitution totaling $9 million dollars. The homeowners who suffered losses were ordered to receive priority over any governmental agency in the restitution.

A map showing the path of destruction caused by the Colby Fire was provided by the United States Forest Service.

Photo: United States Forest Service

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