Crime

Arson is official cause of Nipomo farmworker housing fire

Donna and Greg France, farmers and project owners at the scene of Nipomo housing under construction intended for farm workers. One house was struck by an arsonist, destroying one unit and damaging another.
Donna and Greg France, farmers and project owners at the scene of Nipomo housing under construction intended for farm workers. One house was struck by an arsonist, destroying one unit and damaging another. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The fire that destroyed one partially constructed Nipomo farmworker house and damaged another was set deliberately, according to Cal Fire.

Nearly a month and a half after the April 6 blaze burned structures on the 100 block of South Oakglen Avenue, Cal Fire classified the fire as “intentionally set” in a news release. Officials previously described the incident as “suspicious” but stopped short of calling it a case of arson.

Michael Mohler, a Cal Fire spokesman, said investigating such fires is “tedious and methodical” and that it can sometimes take six to eight months to find the official cause. Cal Fire is working with the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office, the Santa Maria Police Department and the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office to continue the investigation.

Farmer Greg France reads a statement Thursday, April 7, 2016, about the fire that destroyed one house and damaged another in the Mads Place housing development he and his wife bought to house farmworkers in Nipomo.

The houses affected by the fire were two of the seven Greg and Donna France of Mar Vista Berry in Santa Maria intended to buy in the Mads Place cul-de-sac. The homes would have housed 112 workers the Frances were planning to hire through the federal H-2A program, which allows farmers to hire foreign labor during a domestic shortage. The program requires growers to provide housing and food for workers.

The planned housing was not popular among neighbors, many of whom were concerned about farmworkers living in the community. The Frances scrapped their plans after the fire, citing safety concerns.

The fire hasn’t entered the criminal investigation phase, Mohler said. Cal Fire and other agencies are working with the District Attorney’s Office to determine next steps, he said.

“We know it was intentionally set,” Mohler said. “We just move forward.”

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