The woman accused of starting the Fawn fire now ravaging a forest in Northern California — who is facing felony charges of arson — told authorities she was attempting to boil water she believed contained bear urine while on a hike to Canada, according to details from a criminal complaint.
The district attorney’s office in Shasta County, Calif., accused Alexandra Souverneva, a 30-year-old resident of Palo Alto, with “willfully, unlawfully and maliciously” setting fire to an area north of Redding, forcing thousands of residents to flee.
Souverneva was charged with felony arson of forest land with an enhancement of committing arson during a state of emergency for wildfires.
Authorities also say Souverneva, who pleaded not guilty when she appeared in court on Friday, may be responsible for starting another fire elsewhere in Shasta County.
California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday declared a state of emergency in Shasta County due to the Fawn Fire, which began on Sept. 22 and has now burned more than 8,500 acres of land. As of 7 p.m. local time Monday, 60% of the Fawn Fire was contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which reported that three firefighters were injured and 184 structures destroyed.
According to the complaint, an officer from CalFire was dispatched to assess a vegetation fire burning on Sept. 22 at a quarry. A foreman said he and his employees saw a white female trespasser earlier that day who ignored their warnings that she was on private property. The officer said he looked for her but could not find her.
That night, after the Fawn fire started, officers working to extinguish it found Souverneva near the site where the fire began. After examining her for dehydration, a law enforcement officer asked her to empty her pockets and fanny pack, finding a lighter, CO2 cartridges, and “a pink and white item containing a green leafy substance she admitted to smoking that day.”
Souverneva told the officer she stopped her hike at a puddle to drink water and found it “contained bear urine.” After trying to “filter the water with a tea bag,” she “attempted to make a fire to boil” it, but that “it was too wet for the fire to start.”
She said she continued to hike until she saw smoke and “contacted fire department personnel,” who assisted her.
Believing she was “responsible for causing the fire” instead, authorities arrested Souverneva and booked her into Shasta County Jail. Authorities did not mention any possible motive.
In the complaint, the officer who interviewed her wrote: “It is my experience that arsonists are responsible for multiple fires and will light multiple fires in a short timeframe.”
“We are aware that there are possible additional fires here in our county that she may be linked to as well as other charges in other fires, statewide,” Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said at a news conference Friday. “My office will not hesitate to prosecute any person who either intentionally or recklessly starts a fire.”
Since the Fawn Fire is still burning, Bridgett said more charges could be coming. Souverneva is set to next appear in court on Oct. 5. She faces a maximum penalty of nine years in state prison, Bridgett said.
Nearly 1,800 CalFire and other personnel were engaged in suppressing the fire, which is “currently burning with low to moderate intensity in timber and ground fuels,” the department said in a statement.
The Fawn Fire is the latest in a string of raging wildfires — helped by severe weather like drought and record heat — that tore through forest land in California this summer and in other parts of the world, draining firefighters and raising alarm about climate change.
Six of the seven largest fires in California’s history have hit since August last year.
CalFire battalion chief J.T. Zulliger said at the Friday news conference that the Shasta County Unit of CalFire has made 14 arson arrests and CalFire has arrested 103 people statewide for arson.
“We still have a long way to go until the rains come,” he said. “We are still in critical fire danger and … we ask the public to be extremely careful and cautious having to do with any kind of outside activity that may spark a fire.”
The Washington Post’s Ellen Francis contributed to this report.