DEVELOPING: Trial for those accused of starting Sockeye Fire continues into second week

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PALMER, Alaska (KTUU) - Update - April 24, 1:10 p.m.:
Three days into the Sockeye Fire trial, and the state has called its first expert in fire investigation to the stand.

Deputy Fire Marshal Nathan Rocheleau was the first witness to take the stand, on Monday.

Rocheleau testifies that he provides fire inspections and investigations throughout the state, and while qualified as a Wildland fire investigator, he predominately investigates structure fires. In his eleven years, as a Deputy Fire Marshal, Rocheleau says he has assisted in four Wildland fires.

Alaska Division of Forestry led the investigation to determine what started the Sockeye Fire, but did request assistance from the Alaska Dept. of Public Safety to determine whether the origin of fire started from a structure on the Imig property.

Rocheleau spends a good part of the day explaining to the jury how, and why, he was able to exclude structures, like a camper trailer or generator shed, as an ignition source of the fire.

Rocheleau testified that based on burn patterns on structures and demarcation lines showing up on the outside of two propane cylinders, the fire came from the ground or moved, meaning the fire encroached on that area.

The state plans to call a fire investigator from the Division of Forestry to testify, as early as Wednesday.

Update - April 21, 12:15 p.m.:
On Friday, at 9:10 a.m., day two of the trial begins, at the Palmer courthouse. Witnesses were brought up to the stand to speak of their recollections of the 2015 Sockeye Fire.

Charles Wood, a property owner across the street from Imig, recollects the fire had engulfed his entire driveway, when he first saw it. He also claims that the fire was 50 feet high.

"If someone would have come ask me for help, I would have helped," says Wood. But when asked if he did help, he replies, "No, there was no time."

When Wood’s neck was burned from the fire, he claims he initially thought the pain was from a bee sting.

The second witness, Dean Cagle, owns a cabin and recreational property on Kashwitna Lake.

Cagle recalls June 14 being 80 degrees and beautiful, “except for the wind.” The wind was coming from the northwest and heading towards the southeast, he says.

He claims when he noticed the column of smoke, "it was narrow, black and tall."

At the time, Cagle had his 9-year-old daughter with him.

"I know the fire was coming right at us, so I hauled… out of there," said Cagle. "By the time we drove out of the driveway, everything was on fire."

He continues to use a map to indicate where he saw the direction of the fire heading.

"I wish I never would have been in that driveway," says Cagle. "I learned a lot about wildfires that day."

The third and last witness of the day was Alaska state Wildlife Land and Resource technician Caley Maaki.

The department has a three to five minute response rate, according to Maaki. "We were ready," she adds.

However, Maaki said she didn’t see the column of smoke, until about 15 minutes into the fire’s start.

"I could tell it was going to be a problem fire," she claims.

The fire was spotted one-half mile ahead of itself, and after landing, another forestry group was just then arriving to the scene, recalls Maaki.

Today was a short day in court, as it only lasted until 11:48 a.m. The trial starts back up on Monday, at 9 a.m., with more witness testimonies to come.

(App users, to view the Day 2 video of the Sockeye Fire Trial, follow this link).

Update - April 20, 12:10 p.m.:
In his opening statement, District Attorney Eric Senta says, "This case is about proving that Greg Imig and Amy DeWitt started the Sockeye Fire."

Senta alleges that despite high burn conditions, the defendants spent weeks cutting trees and burning three debris piles. He also claims that the burn piles were neither built in safe areas, nor extinguished properly.

Instead of using water to fully extinguish the still-smoldering debris piles, Senta alleges that they walked away from the pile and used the water for lilacs. He argues that this is when the fire crept out and caught the trees on fire.

Senta alleges that the defendants did call 911; however, when the fire was a small circle of 50 to 100 feet, he claims witnesses saw them fleeing the scene. Dewitt and Imig did not stop to fight the fire, or help their neighbors, he argues.

Meanwhile, south of the fire, Willow Fire Department Capt. Leo LaShock was seen helping neighbors evacuate safety, claims Senta.

"Leo was saving lives, when he watched his house burn to the ground," he claims. "This fire affected many people in Willow. This fire was so hot it melted homes down to nothing. In the end, this case is going to be about the recklessness of DeWitt and Imig."

In his opening statement, defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald claims that DeWitt and Imig acted responsibly by calling 911, when they realized that the advancing fire was going to be more than they could manage.

"There won't be dispute this fire caused enormous damage, but it's on the state to prove that it's the "source pit" that started the fire and Dewitt and Imig are responsible," says Fitzgerald.

He claims that the state's "theory" is "inconsistent with common sense and the facts of the case."

Fitzgerald describes the property layout, and confirms that there were three burn piles.

However, in response to Senta's description of the burn piles allegedly consisting of "a large pile of sticks and leaves [shoved] against spruce forest." The defense attorney claims that these piles have been used on property for years, and that there was also a set of boards, placed on pit, to make it look nicer.

Fitzgerald argues that while the defendants did not use all of their water buckets to extinguish the first pile, they "had dinner 25 feet away [and] didn't see anything that would leave them to believe the pit wasn't extinguished." He claims that boards were put on the first pit, because they were done with it. However, the second and third burn piles were still being used.

When the defendants first noticed the fire, Fitzgerald claims that DeWitt and Imig saw that it was off to the northwest, off their property and about 50 yards away. According to Fitzgerald, Imig saw that one tree was already engulfed and said, "The tools [and] water we have isn't going to be enough."

At this point, Fitzgerald claims that three calls were consecutively made to the fire department, within minutes of each other. DeWitt made the first call at 1:11 p.m., DeWitt's son made the second call, and then a third call was made, in an effort to look for updates.

Fitzgerald also argues that firefighters initially thought the fire started on "[Charles] Wood's property." But on June 17, state forestry determined "this source pit" was the source of the fire.

Imig denies guilt, but does admit he didn't have a permit. He claims that they had not used the pit, since the previous night.

"We're going to ask for a not guilty and acquittal on all charges," says Fitzgerald.

The trial could last for several weeks.

(App users, to view the Day 1 video of the Sockeye Fire Trial, follow this link).

Original Story - April 20, 10:45 a.m.:
The trial of Greg Imig and Amy Dewitt begins Thursday morning, in Palmer, for their connection with the Sockeye Wildfire that racked up millions of dollars in damages and expenses.

The two are charged with criminally negligent burning, reckless endangerment, burning without clearing the area and leaving a fire unattended. In essence, they stand accused of starting the fire that burned down more than fifty homes and destroyed more than 72-hundred acres, in the Willow area.

At the courtroom, initial headcounts estimate about two dozen people are attending today's court proceedings, many of them Willow residents who were affected by the fire. Several of them are expected to testify, today.

The state will attempt to prove that Imig and Dewitt are responsible for the Sockeye fire, from two years ago. The state expects to call a number of witnesses, including firefighters, victims, state troopers and fire investigators.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough says that 500 firefighters were utilized in fighting the blaze, and multiple other factors went in to the alleged cost to the state including debris management, emergency center costs, and fire suppression.

These fees, combined with the 55 structures that were damaged in the fire, bring the total cost of the Sockeye fire to a multi-million dollar figure. If the two defendants are found guilty, Alaska Wildland Fire Protection statues say they could be required to pay double the amount of damages sustained, as a result of the fire.

Photo of the Sockeye Fire Trial, on April 20, 2017 / KTUU

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