Palo Alto Scientist Pleads Not Guilty to Setting Shasta Fire That Has Claimed 41 Homes


SAN JOSE, Calif. — A Palo Alto woman has been charged with arson in connection with Shasta County’s Fawn fire that has destroyed 41 homes and 90 smaller structures and is threatening thousands more.

Alexandra Souverneva, a 30-year-old graduate of the California Institute of Technology and former Bay Area biotech employee, pleaded not guilty to the felony charges against her during a Friday arraignment in the county’s Superior Court. She could face up to nine years in state prison if convicted.

Facing a crowd of angry and displaced Shasta County residents at a community meeting on Saturday night, Shasta County Sheriff Michael L. Johnson said, “It is difficult to grasp when disaster like this is, apparently, not a natural disaster. But we have a suspect.”

Deliberate ignition, if proven, “makes it harder for us all to grasp as a community, and to deal with what we’re facing,” he said.

Firefighters are making progress against the Fawn fire as it inched closer to Shasta Lake over the weekend, helped by cool temperatures, increased humidity and light winds. At 8,537 acres, it is now 35% contained.

When Souverneva emerged from the edge of the fire on the evening the blaze started, Cal Fire firefighters discovered that she was carrying a cigarette lighter in her pocket.

She may be linked to other recent fires in the state, Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett said during a Friday news conference. Souverneva has declined an interview request from the Bay Area News Group.