An excavator burns on California State Parks land near a Humboldt Redwood Co. logging operation on Rainbow Ridge.
CalFire has launched an arson investigation after an excavator caught fire on California State Park property near Honeydew yesterday afternoon.
A witness allegedly saw two people near the John Deere excavator shortly before flames took off in the grease and oil of the machine’s undercarriage, allegedly the result of a road flare pitched underneath it.
No suspect has been identified in the case, though a group of people calling themselves “forest defenders” were reportedly parked at the entrance to the site just off Mattole Road prior to the fire. The area slated to be logged — known as Rainbow Ridge — has been a focal point of protests for the past five years. A timber harvest plan submitted by the Humboldt Redwood Co. last year calls for selective harvest of between 1 million and 3 million board feet of Douglas fir.
According to HRC spokesperson John Andersen, the excavator belonged to a crew of private contractors building roads into the logging site. HRC has an easement through state park land to its property on Rainbow Ridge and the contractor, Shinn Construction, has been removing trees to build a road.
“We’ve had some people show up that were protesting,” said Andersen. “Yesterday, one of them apparently put a flare inside an excavator that caused it to catch on fire. Luckily that did not spread to the surrounding forests. We’re trying to get the person responsible. They’re looking at felony arson. We are working with the authorities to try and apprehend the person who is causing these safety issues out in the area.”
Bob Shinn, who drove up to the excavator yesterday afternoon shortly before it caught fire, said the flare was put under, not inside, the excavator, which belongs to his son Wesley Shinn. Per Shinn, the fire was already burning too hot to extinguish with the equipment he had on hand. The Redcrest Volunteer Fire Department, the Honeydew Volunteer Fire Co. and CalFire all responded to the scene. CalFire used helicopter tankers to douse the area with water and flame retardant. Unfortunately, per Shinn and a statement from CalFire, the excavator’s fuel system was compromised and released around 80 gallons of diesel onto the ground. Hand crews and heavy equipment were used to berm the ground to prevent the fuel from spreading, but remediation of the site will be necessary.
“I drove up on a hell of a fire” said Shinn. “It was toxic. Luckily, it was on the side of the road and didn’t spread to the timber. If we ever get (a fire) out here in this day and age, it’s going to be bad.”
“It’s a shitter,” Shinn added, saying he was upset his son’s equipment was ruined.
CalFire Battalion Chief Jeremy Ward said the fire was contained to the excavator, with some scorching of nearby trees and leaf litter on the ground.
“Fire retardant from an air tanker and water from firefighting helicopters helped keep the fire contained until ground resources arrived to extinguish the excavator,” said Ward.
The incident is under investigation as an arson by CalFire, though a spokesperson declined to comment on whether a flare was used to start the blaze.
One of two threatening letters allegedly found on site.
No group or individual has taken responsibility for the incident, although two threatening notes were found onsite and later provided to the Journal
. One, allegedly found taped to the gate, said, “Watch out for spike boards and tree spikes.” Andersen said the trees would be examined for spikes, which are pieces of metal driven into trees that can cause chainsaws to bind and throw back against operators; they will also damage industrial mills when trees are processed.
Jane Lapiner, a member of the Lost Coast League and an original protestor of the logging operation, said she was unaware of the fire when reached for comment this morning. Lapiner was one of four septuagenarian protestors detained in 2019 by Lear Asset Management, HRC’s private security company. The group later had their charges of trespassing dismissed.
“It doesn’t sound like anyone I know,” said Lapiner. “All the young people I know who think of themselves as forest defenders are 100 percent nonviolent.”
Lapiner questioned whether the action might have been taken by a “provocateur” not affiliated with the peaceful protestors.
After the Journal sent a message to the Treesitters Local 707 Group, we received a response purporting from the treesitter, who shared some of Lapiner's questions.
"Our actions in this forest are nonviolent, and motivated by a love for the land and the desire to protect it," they wrote. "From my vantage point, I can see many of the large groves of standing dead hardwood left from HRC's hack and squirt herbicide applications, and know well what a disaster a fire here could be. News of the Six Rivers and McKinney fire, and recent fish kills are devastating, and I have faith no forest defender would risk starting a similar fire in the Mattole. The letter pictured reads more like a parody written with the violent rhetoric typical of Lear and Shinn employees."
was also sent a photo of a group of young people, around a dozen in all, sitting in the trees. Shinn says a few dozen people were protesting as he went through the gates yesterday afternoon, and a day earlier the crew had found the roads blocked by debris. A treesitter has been stationed in an old growth fir there for several days. The sitter appears to be affiliated with a group calling itself Treesitters Union 707. The group has an Instagram account but no formal spokesperson. The Instagram account features video taken from the tree of Lear employees in fatigues blasting conservative talk radio from a Humvee, and guard dogs chained below the tree, ostensibly to prevent protestors from bringing additional supplies to the sitter. Another video, posted Saturday, shows trees being felled close to the sitter, “to better isolate the tree sitter and prevent food and water resupply.”
“Lear Assets Management mercenaries have been taking shifts to prevent approach to the treesit 24/7 for the last week,” the post reads.
This jives with Shinn’s account, who says he asked for help protecting his equipment but was told by Lear that its crew’s efforts were focused on the sitter.
“She’s still in a tree but she’s got to be getting thirsty,” said Shinn, adding that the protestors had fled after the fire. “There ain’t a soul around here.”