A landowner who had been under investigation for nearly a year in connection with the 5,000-acre Baker Canyon fire will not be charged with criminal responsibility for the blaze, a prosecutor said Thursday.
"After reviewing all of the evidence, I determined it did not appear Mr. [Dan] Dulac was culpable for the crime of arson," Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Fell said. "What drew him under suspicion was that the fire was on his property. He was looked at as a suspect just like everybody else."
At its peak, the October 1997 blaze was battled by more than 1,200 firefighters as it threatened homes, caused road closures and burned through hills and canyons a few miles southeast of Modjeska Canyon.
Officials said the fire started as a result of someone, who has not been identified, burning insulation off copper wiring on Dulac's 100-acre property. They allege he was running a metal recycling business there, which Dulac denies. He lives on the property with his family.
"You had a hazardous act on private property being conducted in a fire-prone area," said Capt. Scott Brown, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority. Burning debris escaped from a container and ignited brush, he said.
"Is that a legal operation and is it something that should have been regulated by any agency? Those are the questions that are being asked," Brown said.
Dulac says he was away on vacation when the fire started.
"While we were gone, we had people who were cleaning up the property, stuff I had been accumulating," he said this week. "This is just our ranch and our home. There was no one doing anything illegal that I was aware of."
Since the fire, Dulac's property has been scrutinized not only by arson investigators but by county agencies that have looked for zoning, health, environmental and building violations, Brown said.
"This has been a very long, laborious process," Brown said. "The problem was that there were so many elements involved."
While Dulac, 38, does not face arson or negligence charges, he still could be charged with criminal misdemeanor building violations as the result of the investigation by the other county agencies, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lance Jensen said Thursday.
"We were looking at some environmental situations, but the evidence is leaning more toward quite a few building code violations," Jensen said. "Our investigation began as a result of evidence obtained after the fire. Fire has a wonderful cleansing effect in our ability to see what's going on on a piece of property."
Dulac said he has fully cooperated with authorities and has "not been told" he's liable for anything.
"I think when you have a fire of this magnitude, the magnifying glass is put on you," he said. "The whole thing has been stressful for our family. We're just trying to cooperate and do whatever they want us to do. I have no idea where the fire started. I've only heard lots of rumors. I've heard a hundred different stories."
In the days following the blaze, fire authorities vowed to hold someone responsible for the more than $3.8 million it cost to extinguish the blaze. State law allows fire officials to recoup the cost of a fire started as the result of a "careless or negligent act," fire officials said.
Fire officials said they have not decided whether to file a civil suit against Dulac to recover the cost of fighting the fire.
"It would still be an option that we would entertain based on the final outcome of this," Brown said. "Cost recovery is an important element of any of the fires, and we pursue it aggressively. Whether Dulac falls under that category, I can't say."