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Summit Fire Trial Date to Be Continued

Los Gatos contractor Channing Parker Verden is accused of recklessly starting giant inferno that burned 4,270 acres; jury trial most likely to be set in January, prosecutor says.

The trial for the Los Gatos contractor accused by Cal Fire of the May 22, 2008 Summit inferno that burned 4,270 acres and destroyed many town mountain residents' properties is on the court calendar scheduled to begin this morning.

However, Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney David Boyd said Friday that Channing Parker Verden's defense attorney, Michael Hingle, will appear before Judge Philip Pennypacker to ask for a continuance, which will most likely be granted.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant declined comment on the upcoming trial saying the agency brought charges against Verden, 52, and will now wait for the district attorney to prosecute the case.

"We can't get into the facts," Berlant said. "Anything we say right before the trial can affect the jury. When we do the fire investigation, it's our case, but as soon as we turn the matter over to the authorities, it's their information."

Berlant said the fire started at 5:17 a.m., burned 4,270 acres, destroyed 35 residences, 64 outbuildings, caused 16 injuries and cost more than $16 million to fight. He added conditions were extremely dry and 2008 became the year when the state saw the most fires and dangerous burns in its history.

A Google map on Cal Fire's website shows how the inferno engulfed many mountainous areas in Los Gatos and came dangerously close to Highway 17, 10 miles roughly from the center of town, Berlant noted.

Cal Fire investigators allege Verden left burning piles of debris at a home located at 31000 Summit Road owned by Los Gatos resident Andrew Napell, causing the fire. 

Boyd said Verden has been charged with unlawfully causing a fire that causes an inhabited structure or property to burn, an allegation of causing multiple structures to burn and a misdemeanor health and safety code violation alleging negligently causing a fire.

If convicted, Verden could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison or receive probation or no jail time, Boyd said, explaining that the charges will be considered so-called "post-realignment," which could mean no incarceration at all.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that changes whether certain felonies can be served in state prison or Santa Clara County Jail. One charge, he said, could fall under this new law.

Boyd said the parties involved would most likely appear in court again in January to set another trial date, assuming there's a courtroom available.

"Essentially, in the course of clearing debris and brush from a site off of Summit Road and not properly extinguishing the debris that he was hired to clear, that debris continued to burn," Boyd said. "The hot embers overtime, due to weather conditions, escaped from that debris and started the Summit Fire."

The prosecutor added Verden "is not charged with intentionally setting the fire. He's charged with recklessly failing to extinguish a debris burn and that caused the Summit Fire, which burned thousands of acres and destroyed over 100 structures, many of them being residences."

At the time of the fire, Verden had his own contracting company. It's not known if he was insured, Boyd said.

Boyd said many people who live in the Los Gatos Mountains lost their homes.

During preliminary hearings on the case May 13, May 16-17 and May 19, Boyd said more than a dozen people testified about losing their properties due to the inferno. Among those testifying were several high-ranking Cal Fire officials including Cal Fire Deputy Chief Katherine Price, firefighter Jared Koos, Deputy Chief Joshua White, fire captains Randy Castro and Greg Latronica, Battalion Chief Darrell Wolf and Division Chief Thomas Hein.

Napell also testified as well as civilian Terra Fritch, Santa Clara County District Attorney investigator Craig Farley and Los Gatos Mountain residents Frank Deto and Holly Waddle, Boyd said. Cheyenne Sun Hill, a chainsaw operator for Verden, also testified, he added.

Several calls to Hingle, Verden's defense attorney, weren't immediately returned by press time.

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