November 19, 2008
Student Bonfire Caused Westmont Fire
Authorities did not identify what school the 10 students attended.
Ten men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 22, built a bonfire Wednesday night to warm themselves. Catherine Saillant and Jean Merl write that the students told fire investigators that they thought the bonfire was out when they left early Thursday morning.
Brown declined to identify any of the men and women involved, saying that the matter was still under investigation. However, he said they all lived locally and attended the same school. He declined to say which one.
Westmont College, a Christian university with 1,200 students, sits immediately below the mountain ridge where the Teahouse is located. But Brown would not confirm or deny that students from the private campus were involved.
The group could face charges of negligence or recklessness with fire, he said. It will be up to the district attorney's office to decide what, if any, criminal charges will be filed once the investigation is completed, Brown said.
Investigators learned about the group's late-night outing from an anonymous tipster who called a fire hotline, Brown said.
The fire destroyed 210 homes, damaged nine others, and at least 25 people were injured, three of them with burns in Santa Barbara County.
Nancy Phinney, a Westmont spokeswoman, said the college did not think that any of its students were involved. The school lost several buildings and 14 faculty homes in the fire.
"We have been working closely and cooperating fully with fire officials and at no point has anyone said that any of our students have been implicated," Phinney said.
At Westmont, the fire destroyed three academic buildings, more than 30 dorm rooms, and 14 of the 41 college-owned faculty houses.