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Foothills fire snuffed; Sierra Camp appears secure from Tahoe blaze

BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN AND MICHAEL PEÑA

The Palo Alto Fire Department announced Tuesday that its preliminary investigation showed "human activity" was the likely cause of the brushfire that consumed 178 acres in the foothills just south of the Stanford campus.

"Investigators have concluded that the fire that occurred yesterday afternoon in the foothills above Stanford campus was not caused by electrical or mechanical activity as originally reported," Fire Marshal Dan Firth said in a press release. "Evidence subsequently found at the scene indicates that the fire was likely caused by human activity."

The Stanford Department of Public Safety will continue the investigation, said Capt. Nick Brunot. Anyone with information about the fire is encouraged to call Stanford Police Detective Mark Trueblood at (650) 924-3193.

In an interview, Firth said there was strong evidence that a person—or people—were in the area where the fire started Monday at 4:40 p.m. He said the department doesn't have enough evidence to say whether the act was intentional or accidental.

"It's very unlikely that it was a naturally caused fire, based on the evidence at the scene," Firth said. "The mechanical equipment was not connected, so it wouldn't be a source."

While the origin of the fire was found near an existing diesel generator, the generator was disconnected and secured at the time of the fire.

"There was no evidence that arcing or shorting had occurred within any of the electrical equipment in the area, and no fuses had blown," the Firth said in the release. "There is a power distribution pole with transformer approximately 150 feet west of the generator. There was no debris hung up on the exposed conductors, and no debris was found in the burn area under the wires."

No one was injured, and no homes or university structures were damaged in the fire, which was contained by 9 p.m.

Firth said firefighters conducted night-watch patrols and were still extinguishing hot spots on Tuesday. They were expected to continuing patrolling the area until nightfall.

The Dish trail, a popular recreational trail in the foothills that is open to the public, will remain closed until further notice.

Sierra Camp appears not to be threatened

Meanwhile, as firefighters gained ground on the massive blaze that began Sunday near the South Lake Tahoe area, staff at the Stanford Sierra Camp appeared confident Tuesday that the facility is no longer in imminent danger.

According to Amy Paulsen, senior director of business and membership at the Stanford Alumni Association, the three biggest concerns now are how the weather will influence the ongoing battle against the blaze; when Fallen Leaf Road, which leads to the camp, will be reopened; and whether the general safety of anyone at the camp can be assured.

Dave Bunnett, chief operating officer of the Sierra Camp, and seven staff members remained at the facility Monday under instructions to evacuate if the fire threatened their safety. But the fire appears to have been permanently steered away from Fallen Leaf Basin, Bunnett told Paulsen.

Power and phone service were restored Tuesday morning, so guests who were at the camp and left behind belongings when they evacuated may now call the camp's town office at (530) 542-5600. Student staff who were evacuated remain at a resort on Lake Tahoe's north shore until it is deemed safe to return.

News reports on Tuesday stated that firefighters had the massive blaze 40 percent contained. The fire has burned more than 2,700 acres, destroyed 200 residences and threatened 500 more, according to an update Tuesday by Cal Fire. As of midday, the cause remained unknown.

Evacuees, family of camp staff and guests registered to arrive on Sunday should continue to check for updates at http://www.stanfordalumni.org.