Despite his efforts to put the fire out, Charles Partridge Jr. will face misdemeanor charges for his role in igniting the Caribou Hills blaze. The state Division of Forestry charged him with failure to exercise due care to prevent the spread of fire, the penalty for which includes a fine and possible jail time.
"From my first contact with him (and his wife) they were extremely distraught and upset," said Sharon Roesch, fire prevention officer for Forestry. "They tried to fight (the fire) when the first shower of sparks went out, and stop the spread, but they just couldn't."
According to an Associated Press report, Partridge and his wife Candice, both from Santa Maria, Calif., were building a home for their son and his fiance on land donated by Homer resident Vicki Steik, the bride's mother. Partridge tried to use a hand-held grinder to remove the plastic coating off a shovel when sparks ignited the dead grass around the site.
Roesch said dead grass has been the culprit of many fires this year.
"Once the forest dies it just accumulates until you've got layers of dead grass," she said, adding that aerial assaults aren't effective at grass blazes.
"That's the same kind of thing we get with campfires that are built in the duff. We'll put rocks around it (and) it burns under the rocks and under the duff."
Once the blaze ignited, Partridge tried to fight the fire and move the tractors and other building equipment out of the way.
He sustained minor burns because of the intense heat, Roesch said, and had to be evacuated by helicopter.
"They weren't able to get anything out," she said, "but they did escape with their lives."
Roesch said she decided to charge Partridge in order for Forestry to recoup the cost of fighting the blaze, which exceeded $3.9 million, but he could have faced those charges regardless of the size of the blaze and loss of structures. The fact that this was a first offense and an accident will influence how the judge sentences Partridge, she said.
"Generally we don't recommend jail time for a first-time offender of an accidental nature," Roesch said. "It's just a recommendation, the judge would be the one that makes the decision on sentencing."
Partridge's arraigned is scheduled for July 20 in Kenai.
Fire Information Officer Kris Eriksen said the fire is 66 percent contained and, thanks to firefighters' efforts at mopping up, is at 55,222 acres.
"We're starting to meet with the local area to discuss what we're going to leave behind when the team goes," Eriksen said. "We're looking at what it's going to look like when we're gone."
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