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Improperly wired hot tub caused deadly 2015 Northern California wildfire

Aftermath of the Valley fire in Hidden Valley Lakes.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

A hot tub’s faulty wiring ignited one of California’s most destructive wildfires, a blaze that killed four people, sent four firefighters to the hospital and destroyed more than 1,300 homes last year, officials said Wednesday.

In addition, a fifth Northern Californian who was last seen in his home before it was destroyed by the Valley fire is missing and presumed dead.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection released a 500-page report into the cause of the 120-square-mile wildfire, which devastated a large portion of rural Lake County and parts of Napa County about 90 miles north of San Francisco in September 2015.

The wiring of the hot tub on residential property owned by John and Cindy Pinch in the town of Cobb “was not installed according to building code,” investigators found.

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Tom Casler, who parked near a neighbor’s swimming pool, and Francisco Cervantes describe the drama of the wildfire that descended on Middletown, Calif. 

The property owners are being investigated for possible criminal charges and whether they are responsible for any of the $57 million it cost to extinguish the fire.

The Pinches didn’t return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said a building permit was required when John Pinch installed the used hot tub in 2009.

“We have not found a permit on file,” Pimlott said at a news conference in Lake County.

Pimlott said investigators were discussing with the state attorney general whether the homeowners will be sued.

Lake County Dist. Atty. Don Anderson said at the news conference that he was reviewing the report and starting an investigation to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

“That’s very difficult to answer mainly because I haven’t read the report,” Anderson said. “We are involved with four deaths and that could be a whole range of criminal activity. Obviously there was destruction of a lot of property.”

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The Valley fire was the state’s third-most destructive blaze and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents and businesses.

It’s pretty upsetting that a stupid little mistake like that could have caused so much devastation. It actually floors me.

Gary Herrin, resident

The blaze burned for more than two weeks, and dry, windy conditions made the initial days especially harrowing. The first confirmed fatality was Barbara McWilliams, 72, who suffered from advanced multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair.

The report says it appears McWilliams tried to escape the flames that engulfed her Lake County home on Cobb Mountain by crawling into her fireplace.

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Firefighters also found the remains of three other people.

A fifth person, Robert Lichtman, 61, has not been seen since the fire destroyed his Lake County home, and no remains have been found.

State officials say the cost of the damage will exceed $1.5 billion.

“It’s pretty upsetting that a stupid little mistake like that could have caused so much devastation. It actually floors me,” said Gary Herrin, who had sobbed while walking through what little remained of his destroyed childhood home days after the fire past through his old neighborhood.

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Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown said Wednesday that he doesn’t want people distracted by the cause of the fire. He wants to stay focused on rebuilding the community.

“I can’t help but think the people who are responsible for this must be going through hell themselves,” he said. “It’s awful all the way around.”

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UPDATES:

7 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details and quotes throughout.

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This article was originally published at 5:15 p.m.


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