A woman staying at a central Fresno house was responsible for a blaze at the home that critically injured firefighter Pete Dern, authorities said Thursday.
Julia Beth Ann Harper, 52, “admitted responsibility for starting the fire,” Fire Chief Kerri Donis said at a news conference in downtown Fresno. Harper was arrested Wednesday by Fresno police on a charge of unlawful starting of a fire that caused great bodily injury.
Dern, 49, a captain for the Fresno Fire Department, fell through the garage roof while battling the March 29 blaze at Cortland and Del Mar avenues. Video of Dern’s fall, and the desperate scramble by fellow firefighters to rescue him, was captured on a video that attracted wide attention on social media.
Dern received second- and third-degree burns on about 65% of his body. He is being treated at the Leon S. Peters Burn Center at Community Regional Medical Center.
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Donis said Dern, who already has had several surgeries, was undergoing another as the news conference was being held. Donis said Dern is in good spirits and is “very committed to getting out of the hospital.”
Harper, if found guilty, would face six to seven years in prison, Chief Fire Investigator Don MacAlpine said. She may face additional charges.
She was in Fresno County Jail Thursday night in lieu of posting $75,000 bail.
MacAlpine said it was too early in the investigation to get into specifics about how the fire was started, saying merely: “At this point, we have the individual who is solely responsible for starting the fire.”
MacAlpine said police had been to the Cortland Avenue house, where a number of people rented rooms, earlier in the day after being called by Harper. MacAlpine said Harper had been in a verbal disturbance that an officer resolved before leaving.
Fresno police were familiar with the home and had been to the address more than a dozen times in March, police Lt. Joe Gomez said. MacAlpine did not characterize the house as a boarding home, but said “there were a number of occupants ... some of them were on assistance and some not. As far as a licensed board and care home, we have not identified it as such.”