A 30-year-old Palo Alto woman charged with igniting the California wildfire that has destroyed more than 40 homes and some 90 other structures in Shasta County pleaded not guilty Friday morning.
Alexandra Souverneva, a graduate of the California Institute of Technology who refers to herself as a shaman on her LinkedIn page, said she accidentally started the Fawn Fire on Wednesday when she was boiling bear urine to drink, a narrative filed by Cal Fire law enforcement said.
An attorney at a Friday court appearance said Souverneva made statements to law enforcement suggesting a potential mental health crisis “or something to do with drug abuse,” the Redding Record Searchlight reported.
Judge Adam Ryan increased bail from $100,000 to $150,000 for the felony charge of arson on forest land, noting the fire damage was mounting. Another $25,000 was tacked on for arson during California’s current state of emergency over wildfire danger, the local newspaper reported.
Souverneva is suspected of starting other fires in Shasta County and throughout the state, District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said in a press conference Friday.
The Fawn Fire sparked Wednesday grew to 3,500 acres in less than 24 hours and exploded Thursday afternoon amid breezy conditions, threatening the Mountain Gate neighborhood. The fire was 8,559 acres Sunday night with 45 percent containment, Cal Fire said in its more recent incident report.
Cal Fire said the fire was first reported at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday in a remote canyon on property adjacent to the J.F. Shea and Mountain Gate quarries.
Employees of the quarry reported seeing a female trespasser “acting irrationally” before the fire erupted, Cal Fire said. Before losing sight of her, she “discarded items along a dirt road that consisted of two small Co2 cartridges and a AA battery,” the Cal Fire narrative said.
Cal Fire said Souverneva later walked out of the brush near the fire line, approached firefighters and told them she was dehydrated and needed medical help. Souverneva reportedly had an operable lighter in her pocket as wells as CO2 cartridges and a “pink and white item containing a green leafy substance she admitted to smoking that day.” She told Cal Fire law enforcement she was hiking and “attempting to get to Canada,” the Cal Fire narrative reported.
During an interview with Cal Fire and law enforcement, officers came to believe Souverneva was responsible for setting the fire, officials said. She was booked into the Shasta County Jail.
Souverneva graduated from Palo Alto High school in 2009, the Campanile, the school’s newspaper, reported.
She later attended the California Institute of Technology and graduated in 2012 with degrees in chemistry and biology, the university in Pasadena confirmed.
The Campanile said Souverneva tutored local students in chemistry, and her LinkedIn page indicated she worked for AJ Tutoring in 2020.
AJ Tutoring client Hannah Ramrakhiani told the Campanile that she and other Palo Alto Unified School District students worked with Souverneva during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She is so smart and such a good chemistry tutor, and she was always so nice and calm,” Ramrakhiani said.
Souverneva’s LinkedIn page also revealed that she was a yoga instructor and scuba diver and worked in the biotech industry.
(SFGATE contacted several employers, including AJ Tutoring, listed on Souverneva’s LinkedIn page, but didn’t immediately hear back.)
Firefighters gained the upper hand Sunday on the Fawn Fire that has displaced thousands of people.
Lighter winds and cooler temperatures slowed the Fawn Fire as it moves toward the shores of California’s largest man-made lake and away from populated areas north of the city of Redding, allowing crews to increase containment to 35 percent, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement.
The fire at one point threatened 9,000 buildings, but the number dropped to 2,340 on Sunday.
Light rain was in the forecast for Monday. Fire officials said crews will begin taking advantage of the calmer weather to conduct back burns near the lake to expand the control lines, the Record Searchlight reported.
“We’re going to hold it. It’s going to be done this week,” Bret Gouvea, chief of CalFire’s Shasta-Trinity unit, said at a community meeting Saturday night.
Initial assessments found that 131 homes and other buildings had burned, CalFire said. That number was likely to change as teams go street by street surveying the destruction.
Story by Amy Graff, SFGate. The Associated Press contributed to this report.