Firefighters Testify in Arson Trial of Yolo Unhoused Man

By Isabelle Brady and Haoming Yang

WOODLAND, CA–The trial of a homeless man charged with felony arson proceeded Wednesday afternoon here in Yolo County Superior Court, with a social worker and two firefighters testifying.

The accused, unhoused and living in housing provided by Project Room Key—which was created during the COVID-19 pandemic to give homeless people non-congregate emergency housing—is charged with felony arson of an inhabited structure for a fire that occurred in the motel where he was living on Oct. 22, 2021.

No one died or was injured in the fire.

The first witness was a social coordinator in the City of West Sacramento who first encountered the accused by getting him into Project Room Key around Feb. of 2021. He noted individuals who are put into Project Room Key have certain rules to follow, including not getting into fights at the property and not doing illegal drugs.

The witness indicated that on Oct. 21, 2021, the day before the accused allegedly set the fire, he saw the accused with a very distinctive and large butane canister about one to two feet long.

The next witness was a firefighter for the West Sacramento Fire Department. He said he believed the fire started in a shopping cart that was next to the closet. He tossed the shopping cart out in the parking lot.

When asked if he was able to tell if there had been any efforts to suppress the fire before he got there, the witness said a dry chemical used for extinguishers had been used and was all over the room’s floor.

The final witness of the afternoon was a firefighter and fire investigator, who testified said that, although the fire was out when he got there, “there was still a haze from the dry chemical extinguisher…items on the bed. There were two broom handles holding a cardboard up over the lamp (and) the smoke detector was missing.”

The kitchen, which was separated from the room where the fire happened, had a smoke detector that “had been tampered with so it would not activate,” he said, noting “there was tape and masks folded up over the sensors, blocking the sensors,” rendering the detector “useless.”

The witness said he determined that, “based on the physical evidence in the room—the charring on the door, the lack of charring on the inside of the closet, and the burn marks on the wall and in the shopping cart,” the fire had been “contained to the shopping cart and the closet door and the walls right there.”

According to the witness, damage caused by the fire was “confined to the door, the closet, the wall around the closet, and the smoke damage in the entire room, and the melting of the TV and some other appliances in the room.”

He ruled out the fire being caused by an electrical malfunction—“everything was intact” at the time of the investigation—or natural gas, because there were no appliances that used it in the room.

The witness also ruled out “smoking material”—for example, cigarette butts or cigars—causing the fire. He did not find an ashtray or any cigarette or cigar remains in the room in which the fire occurred, though he did find an empty pack of cigars.

The witness concluded “after doing a thorough examination and ruling out all potential causes of fire including natural gas, appliances, electronics, smoking materials, and any other accidental causes of fire,” that the fire was “intentionally set.”

He said he did not find any evidence of a butane torch having been used, though he acknowledged that one would expect to find “remnants” when a butane torch is used to start a fire.

The witness’ testimony ended with a discussion of the accelerants that he looked for in his investigation. Since firefighters had put out the shopping cart and left it out in the rain, it would have been impossible to find evidence of a liquid accelerant on it and the witness focused instead on other accelerants, like paper.

“Hollywood is really good at making people believe that accelerants are only liquids or only these flammable items. It’s anything we use to aid us in accelerating the fire, and anything including paper. (It) can be used as an accelerant,” he said.

The trial will be ongoing this week.

About The Author

Isabelle is a first year undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara majoring in philosophy. Her passions include writing, criminal justice reform and reading Kurt Vonnegut. She may or may not eventually attend law school.

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