Fire-starting cigarette smoker remains at large |

Fire-starting cigarette smoker remains at large

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune

If and when a person suspected of starting the Gondola fire is placed into custody, the person could face up to five years in prison and a maximum $250,000 in fines, said Patty Pontello, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

There is no known suspect in the case and Forest Service Special Agent Dave Cotter, who is handling the investigation, is up north investigating other fires and could not be reached for comment.

Arson would not likely be considered as a charge because of the Gondola fire’s cause, Pontello said.

“Flicking the cigarette,” Pontello mused. “I’m sure the intent wasn’t to start a fire.”

The Gondola fire started July 3 and charred 673-acres over a five-day span after a carelessly discarded cigarette ignited the blaze. It is unknown whether the cigarette was thrown from Heavenly’s gondola or by a person on the ground.

During the unloading of gondola cars July 3, Heavenly Ski Resort employees took the names and contact information of the riders. Some reside in Europe and New Zealand.

Heavenly spokeswoman Molly Cuffe said the resort continues to enforce its “no smoking” rule on the gondola and mentioned a “no smoking” sign was constructed in front of the ride the day it opened in December 2000.

A cigarette only has a 1-in-10 chance of starting a blaze because of specific conditions, including the direction in which the butt landed, wind and the ground’s slope where the cigarette landed.

Pontello stressed that exact charges can’t be determined until a suspect is in custody and information on the case is readily available.

Because the fire started on U.S. Forest Service land, the prosecution would be handled federally and not be a state issue.

A federal magistrate judge would likely hear the matter at South Lake Tahoe, Pontello said.

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