Investigator Says Traveling Ember Didn't Start Cocos Fire

An investigator testified Friday the flames started by a girl in her backyard could not have created the ember that sparked the Cocos Fire.

It was the battle of the experts as both the prosecution and defense brought in their own fire investigators, ending the second week of a 14-year-old girl’s arson trial. The San Marcos teen, who NBC 7 is not identifying because of her age, faces four felony counts.

The prosecution alleges when the girl used a lighter to set a branch on fire in her backyard, it started the smaller Washingtonia Fire. An ember from that blaze then traveled nearly half a mile, igniting the destructive Cocos Fire, they say.

The defense’s wildfire expert, Douglas Allen, testified Friday the Washingtonia Fire did not have enough loft to launch embers more than 200 feet, let along 11 times that distance. He said strong winds like the Santa Anas blowing that day -- May 13, 2014 – often bring embers to the ground.

“They have a much better chance of being lofted with less wind affecting the convection column,” said Allen, referring to the rising column of smoke and ashes created by a fire.

Upon cross-examination, Allen admitted he has written that Santa Ana winds could spread embers more than a mile away. However, he maintained that while that statement is in general true, he does not believe that happened in this case.

Deputy District Attorney Shawnalyse Ochoa then tried to put the retired fire investigator’s recent training into question. Asked when was the last time he took a wildland fire class, he said “I couldn’t remember.”

“What decade was that?” Ochoa asked.

“Was that a joke?” Allen replied laughing.

“No, sir,” the prosecutor said.

“In the last decade,” Allen testified.

Ochoa asked if he was familiar computer programs like Behave Plus or Wind Ninja – computer programs that help wildfire experts in their investigation. Allen said while familiar with them, he has not used them.

Earlier in the day, Cal Fire Behavior Analyst Tim Chavez took the stand, directly contradicting Allen. He said he has high confidence an ember from the Washintonia Fire started the Cocos blaze -- what the prosecution has been arguing.

Chavez told the court a computer system estimated the wind speeds that day were around 24 miles per hour. However, he said when you stand where the Cocos Fire started, there is a narrow gap in the topography that could have pushed the winds stronger that day, sending an ember from the Washingtonia Fire to the start of the Cocos Fire.

Defense attorney Ryan McGlinn asked about examples of the three fires Chavez had witnessed that saw an ember travel further than half a mile to start a fire and asked if the terrain matched that of the Cocos Fire.

The defense said the report on the Cocos Fire is based on a theory that doesn't match the same conditions of the Washingtonia Fire and that theory hasn’t been proven.

The trial continues Monday.

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