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Complaint Paints Desperate Picture of Blaze Suspect

Sequoia: Woman allegedly used drugs, stalked husband before setting campfire that grew out of control.

July 27, 2002|MARK ARAX and BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FRESNO — In the hours before she lighted a campfire that, so far, has burned 62,000 acres of the Sequoia National Forest, Peri Van Brunt allegedly smoked methamphetamine and stalked her estranged husband, following him to the Roads End Resort near where the fire started last Sunday, according to a federal criminal complaint filed here Friday.

A tearful Van Brunt, 45, appeared in U.S. District Court on charges of setting the fire "willfully and without authority." The complaint painted a portrait of a desperate woman who was nursing an injured eye and trying to patch up a rocky marriage marred by years of drug abuse.

But Van Brunt was not accused of purposefully starting the so-called McNally fire to get back at her husband. Nor was there evidence presented that the Bakersfield woman was under the influence of drugs at the time the fire started.

By late Friday, firefighters were sounding optimistic about the blaze, although it was still only 30% contained and flames were within half a mile of the Packsaddle Grove of giant sequoias.

The fire was making the most headway to the north toward the Golden Trout Wilderness and to the southeast, near Poison Meadow and Cherry Hill Road. Helicopters were making water drops in the southeast. Some personnel were being shifted to the north. On the east, fire engines were sent in to protect cabins at Bonita Meadows, near Sherman Pass.

"This is looking a lot better today," said Karen Giullen, a spokeswoman for the California Department Forestry. "I think today went very well.... We still continue to have a few problems, but things are looking better."

Giullen, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry, said firefighters were holding their own along a cleared strip between the fire and Pack Saddle.

"The line is in place and it's a good line. We have personnel, air and ground support, and we're hoping [the fire] just comes up and bumps that line and stops there."

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, in their case against Van Brunt say she made the mistake of building a campfire without a permit and failing to adequately clear out brush--enough to charge her with a crime.

"The requirements for a permit and the requirements on how to conduct yourself in a national forest, they are there for a reason," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Carl Faller. "When folks don't follow those regulations, appropriate action will be taken."

Van Brunt, who is being held in Fresno County Jail without bail until a hearing next week, was required to neither enter a plea nor speak. Her left eye was still black and blue, an injury that Faller said took place before the fire, although he would not elaborate.

Her feet and hands bound in chains, she bit her lower lip and tried to hold back tears. As she was led out of the courtroom, she smiled at her teenage son and a female relative who shooed off reporters, saying only that the fire was unintentional. "I know it was an accident," she said.

In an affidavit filed as part the criminal complaint, U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Phillip Stewart said the wildfire began at 2 p.m. Sunday near the Roads End Resort beside the Kern River in the Cannell Meadow Ranger District.

He said employees of the resort were confronted a few moments later by a woman with blond hair and a bruised left eye, screaming that she had started a wildfire and did not know what to do.

The woman, who was accompanied by a tan-and-white boxer dog, then drove off in a beat-up white pickup, according to the affidavit. Three days later, Gary Van Brunt, the estranged husband who was staying at the resort at the time, contacted police. He told authorities that the description of the woman who allegedly started the fire matched that of his wife.

"He said [on the day of the fire] he saw his wife walking toward the resort from a campsite that the two of them had used for several years," the affidavit states. "In the years they camped there, they had always obtained fire permits and properly cleaned the area around the campfire.

"He stated that he had been at the resort in order to avoid his estranged wife. He contended [she] was stalking him and ... he was seeking a restraining order."

Agent Stewart said he then tracked down Peri Van Brunt at her home in Bakersfield and she acknowledged that she had started the fire and was going to turn herself in.

"She admitted that she did not have a campfire permit prior to starting her campfire," the affidavit states. "She also admitted to having smoked methamphetamine the night before she traveled to the resort."

If convicted, Van Brunt faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Three much smaller wildfires burned inside and next to the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border Friday. One of them was contained and the other two were not spreading rapidly.

The largest of the three was the so-called Stanza fire, about 10 miles southeast of Happy Camp on the Klamath River. Forest Service officials said steep terrain and increasing winds were hampering efforts to control the fire, which had burned about 350 acres by Friday evening.

A 60-acre blaze was burning through rugged backcountry near the community of Klamath River, about 15 miles west of Interstate 5. Officials did not expect full containment before tonight or Sunday.

On the east side of the national forest, crews contained a 75-acre fire near the town of Dorris on Friday morning.

Another blaze, in Yosemite National Park, was extinguished before dawn Friday after blackening about 15 acres on the shoulder of Half Dome.

*

Times staff writer Eric Malnic contributed to this report.

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