A scientist from Palo Alto may be behind two fires in as many days in the midst of a brutal California wildfire season. Court documents reveal that Alexandra Souverneva, a scientist arrested last week for allegedly starting the Fawn Fire in Northern California’s Shasta County on September 22nd, is believed by authorities to also be potentially responsible for setting a second blaze in the area the day before.
On Friday, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett announced the arrest of Souverneva, 30, on felony arson charges for allegedly starting the Fawn Fire, which at the time had spread to nearly 10,000 acres and prompted mandatory evacuations. Bridgett said authorities believed the suspect could be linked to other fires in the state and that additional charges were likely, but she declined at the time to elaborate.
According to court documents, an officer from Cal Fire, the state’s forestry and fire protection department, questioned Souverneva about a fire started nearby the day before the Fawn Fire that was also believed to be the work of an arsonist. She had been in jail the day before for resisting arrest, but was released hours before the fire started. (The DA’s office confirmed to Rolling Stone that a case is pending from the earlier arrest, but did not provide further details.) “Based on the overwhelming evidence indicating Souverneva’s responsibility for the Fawn Fire, it is my opinion there is a high possibility she is responsible for the vegetation fire in Shasta Lake City the previous evening,” Cal Fire officer Matt Alexander said in the report. “It is my experience that arsonists are responsible for multiple fires and will light multiple fires in a short timeframe.”
Souverneva has not been charged in relation to the fire set on the 21st — which firefighters successfully extinguished. Shana Vegvary, the public defender representing Souverneva, said in an email to Rolling Stone, “No evidence has been presented to support additional charges.”
For the alleged starting of the Fawn Fire, Souverneva was arraigned on Friday on a felony arson charge and for committing arson during a state of emergency. She pleaded not guilty. “My client, Ms. Souverneva, has entered a not guilty plea to arson and the enhancement, thereby asserting her innocence to these charges,” Vegvary told Rolling Stone. “No evidence has been presented to the contrary. We request that the public not prejudge this case.”
The Fawn Fire, which started on September 22nd, is the latest of several fires to sweep the state this year. Blazes have burned 3,600 square miles so far in 2021 and destroyed more than 3,200 homes, commercial buildings, and other structures. As of Tuesday, the fire was 65 percent contained, according to Cal Fire, but still spanned around 8,500 acres. It has injured three firefighters and destroyed 185 structures.
On September 22nd, several people reported seeing Souverneva “acting strangely” in the area where the fire began, Bridgett said at a press conference. “When the fire burns it leaves evidence behind, and we’re able to read those indicators and it takes us back to a general origin area,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief JT Zulliger said at the press conference. “We then look at any potential ignition sources within that area and in this particular case, we believe that the suspect was there.”
According to Cal Fire’s report, Souverneva had been trespassing near a quarry and ignored workers who told her she wasn’t allowed there. As she walked away, she dropped two small CO2 cartridges and a AA battery. After the fire started, Cal Fire officers encountered her coming out of the brush. She had a cigarette lighter on her, and a pink-and-white item containing a “leafy substance” that she said she’d smoked earlier. She described the item as an “incendiary device” that she said was safe because she’d removed the battery, officer Alexander said in the report.
Souverneva told the officer she had attempted but failed to light a fire in the woods. While trying to hike to Canada, she explained, she’d become thirsty. She tried to start a fire to boil water from a puddle which she said had bear pee in it. She claimed it had been too wet to start the fire, but she drank the water anyway. The officer then arrested Souverneva, according to the report.
Souverneva majored in chemistry and biology at the California Institute of Technology and graduated in 2012, a school spokesperson confirmed to the New York Times. Her LinkedIn profile says she recently worked part-time as a tutor and as a researcher of medicinal chemistry at Gilead Sciences. Years earlier, she’d been a camp counselor and a piano teacher. She’d also recently completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training program, the San Francisco Chronicle confirmed. “It sounds absolutely 100 percent out of character,” Steve Farmer, owner of Avalon Yoga International in Palo Alto, where Souverneva had completed her training, told the Chronicle. “Maybe she was camping and was careless or something, but I can’t possibly imagine that arson was involved. It wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
If convicted, Souverneva faces up to nine years in prison. She’s being held on $150,000 bail at the Shasta County Jail. She’ll next appear in court on October 5th.