October 24, 2021

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Two fires? Palo Alto scientist linked to earlier Shasta County blaze – The Mercury News

4 min read

The night before the furious Fawn Fire erupted outside the city of Shasta Lake, claiming dozens of homes, a smaller blaze ignited, then was extinguished, in the darkness on the edge of town.

Separated by five miles, the two Shasta County fires are now linked: Palo Alto’s Alexandra Souverneva, 30, is a suspect in both.

Additional charges have not yet been filed, but “It is my opinion there is a high possibility she is responsible for the vegetation fire in Shasta Lake City the previous evening,” said Cal Fire’s Matt Alexander, who interviewed and then arrested Souverneva, in a report to Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. “It is my experience that arsonists are responsible for multiple fires and will light multiple fires in a short timeframe.”

On Sept. 21, the day of first fire, Souverneva was in jail for resisting arrest. Details about that incident are not yet available.

But she was released from custody by late that same afternoon. The fire, reported at 9:13 p.m., was caused by arson, according to the Shasta Lake City Fire Protection District.

At 9 a.m. the next day, Sept. 22, Souverneva was stopped for trespassing on the property of a local quarry, just to the north of town. Wearing a black hoodie and gray pants, she ignored a worker’s request to leave the property and continued walking along a dirt road. Along the way, she discarded two small CO2 cartridges and a small battery, according to Alexander’s report to District Attorney.

It was near this route that Alexander detected burn patterns in a dry creek bed that were clues to the origin of the Fawn Fire — and, in his mind, signaled arson.

When Souverneva emerged from the edge of the fire that evening, Cal Fire firefighters discovered that she was carrying a cigarette lighter in her pocket. She also had a cannabis-like substance that she said she had smoked.

The case has garnered nationwide attention. Souverneva, with a degree from the illustrious California Institute of Technology, has taught yoga, piano and chemistry.

Born into a family of engineers, she’s a certified scuba instructor and also a scientist who studied medicinal chemistry at the State University of New York. She worked as a research associate at the biotech companies Gilead Sciences in Foster City and Nanosyn in Santa Clara.

If convicted of starting the Fawn Fire, she could face up to nine years in state prison.

Earlier this month, Souverneva was arrested on Interstate 5 near Red Bluff and booked into the Tehama County Jail on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs and obstructing and resisting arrest. A week later, she was arrested in coastal Oregon for criminal trespass, which means unlawfully entering another’s enclosed or fenced-in property. In Santa Clara County, court records show she faced misdemeanor charges in 2017 and criminal charges in 2015.

Many people who commit arson have extensive psychiatric histories and symptoms at the time of their fire-setting, according to a study by Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In an analysis of examined mental health records and prison files from 283 arsonists, 90% were found to have mental health histories; of those, 36% had schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Nearly two-thirds, or 64%, were abusing alcohol or drugs at the time they set fires. While there were different motives for setting fires, many people were both angry and delusional.

But the profile of the typical arsonist bears little resemblance to Souverneva. According to a study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, most serial arsonists are young white men; almost all are under the age of 30. They typically come from poor and emotionally unstable families. The average serial arsonist has only completed 10th grade.

The most common motive for setting fires was revenge, followed by excitement, vandalism, profit, and other crime concealment, the study found.

Souverneva told investigators that she was hiking through the Shasta County wilderness to get to Canada, according to the report.

Thirsty, she used a tea bag to try to clean a puddle of water that contained bear urine, she said. That was unsuccessful, so she lit a fire to boil the water. But the fire didn’t ignite, she added.

She has pleaded not guilty to charges of arson in the Fawn Fire. She remains in custody on $150,000 bail. She does not have an attorney, so is being represented by a public defender.

Souverneva’s next court appearances are scheduled for October 5 and October 7.

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