Authorities have arrested a self-described “shaman” who they believe intentionally set the latest wildfire in California.
The Fawn fire near Redding started Wednesday afternoon and spread quickly, burning homes and prompting evacuation orders Thursday for thousands of people, according to local officials.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) officials said Alexandra Souverneva, 30, of Palo Alto, was under arrest on suspicion of starting the fire. She has pleaded not guilty.
Workers at a quarry reported seeing a woman behaving strangely and trespassing the day the fire began. Cal Fire said Souverneva later walked out of the brush near the fire line, approached firefighters and told them she was dehydrated and needed medical help.
During an interview with Cal Fire and law enforcement, officers came to believe Souverneva was responsible for setting the fire, according to officials and an Associated Press report. She was booked into the Shasta County Jail. It wasn’t immediately known if she has an attorney.
As the Fawn fire raged Wednesday, Souverneva claimed she had been hiking and trying to get to Canada. She told forest officials that she was thirsty and had come across a puddle of what she believed to be bear urine. She tried to make a fire to boil it, according to documents obtained by the Redding Record Searchlight.
She found that conditions were “too wet for the fire to start,” so she drank the water that she thought was animal urine and continued on her way, the report said. Souverneva eventually got trapped in the brush amid the inferno and had to call the fire department to help her, according to the report.
She was asked to empty her pockets and fanny pack, which had CO2 cartridges, a cigarette lighter and an item “containing a green, leafy substance she admitted to smoking that day,” according to Cal Fire officer Matt Alexander.
So far, the Fawn fire has destroyed 155 structures, damaged 22 and is threatening more than 2,300 others. This is based on a Monday morning Cal Fire report.
Souverneva may be linked to other blazes in Shasta County and elsewhere in California, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said during a press conference Friday morning.
Felony charges were filed against Souverneva, “not only for arson, but also for committing an arson during a state of emergency,” which carries a nine-year prison term, Bridgett added. She said additional charges are likely as the investigation continues. The complaint was filed Friday at Shasta County Superior Court.
On her LinkedIn page, Souverneva lists “shaman” as her current occupation and indicates that she was a doctoral student at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry.
A New York Post report said an attorney for Souverneva stated during her initial court hearing that she’d made statements to law enforcement indicating a possible mental health crisis “or something to do with drug abuse.”
Most of California has been in a drought for about the past year, with “exceptional” drought, the worst category on the U.S. Drought Monitor, in Redding and other areas of Northern California since June. Periods of rain have been few and far between. The drought, along with bouts of very low humidity and gusty winds, has fueled a busy and destructive wildfire season.
The Fawn fire was initially about 5,800 acres in size, increasing to about 8,600 by Monday morning. Cal Fire said the blaze was 50% contained at that time. This is one of 10 large wildfires burning in California, according to the National Fire Interagency Center, including the two biggest in the country — the Dixie and Caldor fires, which have been burning since July 13 and Aug. 14, respectively.
As many as 90% of wildland fires are caused by people, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. These include arson, but mostly result from unattended campfires, the burning of debris, downed power lines and negligently discarded cigarettes.
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