No charges against man blamed for Reno wildfire
January 23, 2013
RENO — Prosecutors won’t press charges against the 58-year-old Washoe Valley man whose improper disposal of ashes from his fireplace sparked the wind-whipped brush fire that destroyed 28 homes south of Reno last January, caused $4.5 million in damage and was blamed for the death of an elderly woman.Chief Deputy District Attorney Kristin Erickson said in a memo released Tuesday that she doesn’t believe Lyle Teuscher was guilty of any crime.“Although the fire was horrific, it was not a criminal act, but was accidental in nature,” Erickson said in the memo endorsed by District Attorney Richard Gammick.Teuscher told investigators he disposed of the ashes in a metal trailer outside his home about four days before the fire began. Whipped by wind gusts approaching 80 mph, the blaze quickly spread across five square miles just south of Reno.The lone victim, 93-year-old June Hargis, lived in a studio apartment near where the fire broke out and died of smoke inhalation. Her daughter, Jeannie Watts, told the Reno Gazette-Journal on Tuesday that she was disappointed no charges would be filed.“I wanted something for her,” Watts said.Teuscher was not home when the fire started. Investigators said in the days afterward that he “was very remorseful and embarrassed, and he was very concerned with the fire victims” while being interviewed. He told them he had even placed his hand within the ashes to ensure they were cool before he deposited them in a metal container in the trailer.Erickson concluded that there’s no evidence to prove beyond a reasonable double that Teuscher’s actions were willful or negligent, as required under Nevada law.“Mr. Teuscher acted reasonably in that the fire was extinguished several days prior to the removal of the ashes, he tested the heat of the ashes by placing his hand/arm inside the ashes and then deposited them in a metal trailer,” Erickson wrote in the Jan. 17 memo to Assistant District Attorney John Helzer.“It is simply not foreseeable after the alleged precautions taken by Mr. Teuscher that 78 mph winds would occur on this day and manage to carry a spark from seemingly cold ashes inside a metal trailer to start a brush fire in the middle of winter,” she said.“Given the evidence submitted, Mr. Teuscher acted in a reasonable manner and the state would not be able to prove negligence beyond a reasonable doubt.”Erickson wrote in the memo first released on Tuesday that a lack of information on a number of fronts prevented a more thorough examination of whether charges were appropriate, noting it was unfortunate that Teuscher’s account of the incident was the only one fire inspectors obtained, according to the report by Reno Fire Department inspector Scott Shields.Among other things, Erickson said the report had no information about Teuscher’s prior practices, his burning and disposal routines, accounts from neighbors or other witnesses. She also noted no one had collected or photographed as evidence the bucket used to transfer the ashes from his fireplace.“There is nothing to prove or disprove this version of events as RFD investigation contains no statements from neighbors as to their knowledge of the burning habits of Mr. Teuscher via visible smoke or otherwise and whether or not the neighbors also deposited ashes in the suspect’s metal trailer or in a similar manner,” she wrote.Reno Fire Chief Michael Hernandez said in response to a query from The Associated Press that prosecutors hadn’t raised any concerns about the investigation since his inspectors provided the district attorney’s office with a “comprehensive and conclusive report” in April 2012.“Since that time, the Reno Fire Department has not been asked to provide any further information or conduct any further investigation. Our department will always cooperate with any agency and will continue to assist with any follow-up if asked,” Hernandez said in an emailed statement.“It is important to remember the fire department’s responsibility is to determine the cause and origin of the fire and our investigators did just that. The determination of whether a crime has been committed falls to law enforcement agencies.”Gammick insisted Tuesday that he was “not critical” of the way fire officials handled the probe and that he couldn’t say whether more information would have changed the outcome of his office’s decision. But Gammick said the initial report the fire department furnished to the media on April 29 had “a lot of holes in it and some inconsistencies” and that his office had asked a fire inspector to follow up on those but that the inspector did not.“I think there is a misunderstanding by various folks involved in this and we have an investigator that did not complete what he was asked to do,” Gammick said late Tuesday.