A Palo Alto woman has been charged with arson for allegedly sparking the Fawn fire burning in Shasta County, officials announced Friday.
Alexandra Souverneva, 30, was arrested Wednesday after the fire ignited in the Mountain Gate area near Redding. The fire grew quickly, fueled by dry timber and heavy winds, and by Friday it had seared through more than 5,850 acres and was only 10% contained.
Officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said employees at a remote property near the fire's origin reported a woman trespassing and "acting irrationally" in the area early Wednesday.
Hours later, when firefighters were already battling the burgeoning blaze, Souverneva "walked out of the brush near the fire line" and approached firefighters, telling them that she was dehydrated and in need of medical treatment.
A subsequent interview by Cal Fire law enforcement officers led them to believe she was responsible for causing the fire, the agency said. She was arrested and taken to the Shasta County Jail, where she remained in custody Friday.
Souverneva has been charged with one count of felony arson and an enhanced charge of committing arson during a state of emergency, which together could result in up to nine years in prison, Dist. Atty. Stephanie Bridgett said during a news conference Friday.
"However, the fire is obviously still burning and the investigation is still underway, and based on the final damages and outcome of that investigation, additional charges are likely," Bridgett said, noting that Souverneva may be linked to additional fires in the county and state.
In a written statement attached to the criminal complaint, Cal Fire officer Matt Alexander said Souverneva ignored the workers who told her she was trespassing on Wednesday and that she "continued walking east into the vegetation." She was later found with CO2 cartridges and a working lighter. She told Alexander she was trying to get to Canada.
Fire officials have repeatedly warned that hot, dry conditions across the region have primed California's forests for ignition and that a single spark can create a fire. More than 2.35 million acres have burned across the state this year.
"We still have a long way to go until the rains come," Cal Fire battalion chief J.T. Zulliger said during the news conference. "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."
Souverneva is not the first person to face arson charges relating to wildfire in California this year. Zulliger said the Shasta-Trinity unit of Cal Fire has made 14 arson arrests, while there have been 103 arson arrests statewide.
In August, former college instructor Gary Maynard, 47, was arrested in connection with an "arson-setting spree" near the Dixie fire. Later that month, Viola Liu, 43, was charged with arson for allegedly sparking a fire near South Lake Tahoe.
Officials could not speak to specific motives for those charged with arson, but Zulliger noted that there does appear to be a pattern.
"It seems that we have a very small portion of the citizenry that does set fires," he said.
An attorney for Souverneva could not be reached for comment. Social media profiles that appear to belong to her indicate that she may have a background in environmental chemistry.
As of Friday afternoon, more than 9,000 structures were threatened by the Fawn fire. At least 25 have already been destroyed.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.