SANTA ROSA, Calif. - Quick action by a firestorm survivor foiled two copper thieves on his property, investigators say.
"This is looting, this is a disaster area, " Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Travis Koeppel told KTVU, at the debris-covered lot off Mark West Springs Road.
Felony charges of grand theft and conspiracy have been filed against two women: 47-year-old Verda Roser of San Francisco and Allyn Sullivan, 57, of Forestville.
The Mark West Springs area, very hilly and woodsy, was the first section of Santa Rosa ravaged by October's firestorm.
Hundreds of homes were destroyed, as residents ran for their lives.
But in the aftermath of tragedy, some see opportunity.
"It's sad, now this homeowner has been victimized twice, once by the fire, and now scavengers," said Sgt. Koeppel.
The owner of the home found the two women in an unfamiiar truck, on his property Monday evening.
The truck had a magnetic decal on the door reading "Divine Demolition."
In the truckbed: 300-400 pounds of scorched scrap metals.
"He knew this vehicle didn't belong here, it wasn't part of the regular cleanup crew," said Koeppel, describing how the homeowner, a firefighter, blocked his own narrow driveway with his vehicle to keep the interlopers from leaving.
And when deputies arrived ?
"They admitted they were up here to take copper wire, and said they had been up here a few days earlier to do the same thing at other homes," explained Koeppel.
The properties are high on a hill, and very private, not visible from the main road.
"So for somebody to come up here and find these homes, you're really, really looking for something," said Koeppel.
Copper, in the plumbing and wiring, is sold by weight as scrap.
Recyclers pay between $2.00 -$3.00 a pound for it.
Fire damage doesn't matter because it goes into a smelter to be melted down anyway.
In addition to the decoy truck, investigators say the two women wore hard hats and safety vests, to make their ruse more convincing, .
"A magnetic decal on the side of the vehicle, and you're wearing a vest and helmet, to the untrained observer they're going to look like a legitimate person sent to do cleanup," said Koeppel.
Certified clean-up contractors reacted with bemusement.
"It doesn't surprise me, no," said Mike Sciacca of Team Ghilotti, "because there is a lot of money in metal."
Sciacca and colleague Sean Durenburger were finishing up a day's work in the Larkfield neighborhood, below Mark West Springs.
They note professional crews carry signed "right of entry" forms, permission to work on private property.
And they place fire debris, including metals, into dumpsters, not in an open truckbed like the alleged scavengers.
"The had to go through hazardous material to pull that metal," said Durenburger, " but this happens every day, everywhere, regardless of whether it's a fire or not. The scrappers are out there."
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Dept. would like to hear from anyone who has encountered the women or their vehicle over the past few months.
"I'm sure these ladies aren't the only ones out there doing it," said Sgt. Koeppel.
He notes, the value of the scrap copper is beside the point.
"They're violating people for a second time, a thief comes and scavenges what's left of your property and your memories, that's not fair."
Metals recyclers are supposed to check photo identification and keep written records of material that is brought to them.
Sgt. Koeppel says some yards might question copper that is obviously taken from the firezone, but others are too busy or disinterested to care.