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PictSweet Officials Suspect Arson in Compost Fire


VENTURA — As county officials determine the final costs of battling last week's compost fire at PictSweet Mushroom Farms, company executives now say they suspect arson rather than spontaneous combustion.

Fire investigators, however, have found no evidence to support an arson theory, though they have not ruled it out as a possibility, Fire Chief Bob Roper said Thursday. Investigators continue to interview company workers and firefighters for clues, he said.

It is not uncommon for a large pile of compost to heat and catch fire on its own, fire officials have said.

Meanwhile, PictSweet officials have announced plans to offer a $10,000 reward through the Ventura County Crime Stoppers program for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for starting the fire that burned March 11-18.

Roper said he supports PictSweet's willingness to post a reward.

"If we can find credible sources, it helps us in our investigation," he said.

But as of Thursday afternoon, Crime Stoppers had yet to agree to serve as a conduit for the reward, because there was not enough evidence to indicate a crime had occurred, Sheriff's Det. Kim Garrett said. "If there's no crime, there's no need to post a reward."

PictSweet attorney Harry Stang said his client is not pointing at any suspect in particular. "All we're saying is that our people feel that it was not spontaneous combustion," he said.

Stang said the fire started at the edge of the pile, whereas "normally those fires, if they're spontaneous combustion, start in the middle."

But Fire Capt. Keith Mashburn said PictSweet officials encouraged investigators to look in particular at employees active in long-standing efforts to unionize with the United Food Workers.

"Because of some union action--protesting--there's been some question of whether some disgruntled employee or upset union person started this fire," Mashburn said. "All of our leads so far have run into dead-ends. No one witnessed anyone starting a fire or has even said that so-and-so said they wanted to start a fire."

Union spokesman Marc Grossman called the suggestion that his group was involved "absurd."

"If they state or imply the UFW had anything to do with a fire, they'd better put the $10,000 into a bigger pot of money to pay out a potential legal judgment," Grossman said of PictSweet management. "It sounds like the company is trying to deflect the blame due to its potential liability."

Roper said it would most likely be next week before the county releases an estimate of the costs incurred in fighting the fire.

County regulators say it could be another two weeks before they decide whether to also levy fines against the company for creating a public nuisance.

Should investigators determine the fire was started by an individual, Grossman said, that might affect how much the company is expected to reimburse the county for the use of firefighters who helped extinguish the acrid blaze of straw and horse manure.

It also could shift criticism away from company officials, who allowed three times the normal amount of compost to build up on their property.

PictSweet has said the compost buildup was due to decreased mushroom production in the wake of the ongoing labor dispute with pickers and union organizers.

Fire investigators said there are a number of factors that complicate the investigation. For instance, they are not certain where in the compost pile the fire originated. By the time they arrived on the scene, a wide swath of the pile was already smoldering.

Also, Mashburn said, there were tractors near the pile. In past fires, he said, "we've had cases where diesel exhaust shoots out a piece of carbon from an exhaust pipe and goes into dry brush."

In the absence of fuel or another source that indicates arson, Mashburn said, "we have to eliminate all other causes. And we're having a very difficult time eliminating the possibility of spontaneous combustion."

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