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Colorado Fire investigation discovers issues with local burn permit process

BIG SUR, Calif. (KION) The investigation into the Colorado Fire in Big Sur — which Cal Fire says was started by a reignited permitted burn — has brought to light a misunderstanding with how some local agencies have been issuing burn permits.

The Colorado Fire ignited Jan. 21, and just days later, Cal Fire released the cause: a permitted pile burn that reignited two days later. The issue: the permit was issued by the Mid Coast Fire Brigade. Assistant Chief George Nunez with Cal Fire San Benito-Monterey Unit says Mid Coast Fire's jurisdiction actually falls under the State Responsibility Area (SRA).

"A person shall not burn in the State Responsibility Area without a permit. So in State Responsibility Areas, they need to get a permit from Cal Fire so that way they can burn," said Nunez.

Cal Fire's investigation also looked further into neighboring fire departments.

Big Sur Fire Chief Matt Harris said their volunteer fire department has been issuing burn permits for decades, long before he became chief three years ago — following all the same guidelines that Cal Fire sets. But it turns out — they also fall under the State Responsibility Area.

"It turns out that because we are essentially a private fire company and we are not a fire district, or a city or anything of that nature, we were actually never formally delegated authority from Cal Fire to control burns within their area," said Harris.

Big Sur Fire is now deferring their burn permit process over to Cal Fire. Anyone who already had a permit from the volunteer department is now asked to go to Cal Fire's website and reapply through them.

"We still require our constituents and residents to notify us every day they do a burn and they do that via an online form. On the form is a requirement to put in your now Cal fire burn permit number," said Chief Harris.

KION reached out to Mid Coast Fire on whether they will be changing their permit process as well but has not heard back. We did speak to Chief Cheryl Goetz back in January, and she explained why the department gave out permits.

"You can imagine, if 50 people have permits and everybody's doing a backyard burn, we get a lot of calls and we are a volunteer fire department, so it starts taxing us," Goetz said at the time. "They used to get their permits from Cal Fire and we had no idea. We just had to run all the nuisance calls because they were in our area. So this has helped us."

Cal Fire is still finishing its investigation into the Colorado Fire. Nunez said it should be completed in the next few weeks.

When asked if Cal Fire still considers the start of the Colorado Fire to be a "permitted burn," Nunez only said, "It was a permitted burn and it was issued by Mid Coast fire. And that's about all I can say."

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Lisa Principi

Lisa Principi is a reporter at KION News Channel 5/46.

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