POTTER VALLEY, Calif. >> It was a fire that crossed mountain ranges and valleys, that spanned multiple counties and shocked Californians by its sheer scale — by far the biggest wildfire in modern state history. And yet a newly disclosed investigation suggests it was likely started by a single man and a single spark.
In a report released in recent days, forensic investigators found that a rancher started the fire when hammering a metal stake in his backyard to snuff out a wasp nest. Sparks flew, igniting dry grass stalks and spreading fire quickly across the desiccated landscape.
The rancher’s name was not disclosed, but a review of records led to the home of Glenn Kile, a former heavy equipment operator in his mid-50s, who had no inkling of the devastation he would unleash on a Friday morning last July while tinkering in his backyard. Seeing the fire, he said, came as a shock.
“I smelled smoke, I turned around and there it was,” Kile said in an interview on the porch of his barn-red, two-story home this week. Kile, who hasn’t talked publicly about the fire before, referred to it as if it had been an apparition. “There was nothing I could do,” he said.
During a morning of chores on his ranch three hours north of San Francisco, he had spotted an underground wasp nest. He grabbed a metal stake and pounded it into the hole to try to seal it off, according to an investigation by California’s fire agency. He told investigators he was allergic to stings and wanted to plug the hole.
He was judged responsible for the fire, but not negligent. Under the heading of violations, the report says “Not Applicable.”
Thousands of firefighters worked for more than a month to extinguish the Ranch Fire, which destroyed more than 150 homes and cost tens of millions of dollars to suppress. The fire burned 410,203 acres of California wild lands, an area half the size of Rhode Island, and killed a firefighter who was struck by a falling tree.
“It really drives home how volatile conditions are,” said Ken Pimlott, a career firefighter who oversaw the Ranch Fire as chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.