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Chase ends in grass fire that sends smoky haze over Santa Rosa

A Cal-Fire tanker makes a drop to protect structures as a brush fire nears homes off Todd Road in Santa Rosa, Wednesday July 10, 2013.

Kent Porter / PD
Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 3:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.

Two men who tried to flee sheriff's detectives by driving a Ford Mustang into a pasture apparently sparked a large vegetation fire in southwest Santa Rosa Wednesday afternoon.

The 2:15 p.m. fire off Todd Road quickly spread, growing to 82 acres and threatening nearby homes and livestock.

“It burned right up to two or three different structures,” Santa Rosa Deputy Fire Chief Tony Gossner said. “It was very close.”

Stoked by warm temperatures and steady breezes, the blaze sent smoke over Roseland and downtown Santa Rosa before firefighters aided by air support brought it under control.

“It was just a fast moving, flatland grass fire and it's hard to catch those,” Gossner said.

The flames raced across much of the 80-acre ranch owned by the Poma family, threatening about 40 head of cattle and other animals in the path of the flames.

“We literally got 50 head of animals out of here in about 20 minutes,” said Hailey Poma, 18. She described the rescue as family members chased down a wandering calf and firefighters put out hot spots in the pasture just a few feet from her family's barn.

The pursuit began about 2 p.m. when two Sonoma County Sheriff's detectives in an unmarked car heading north on Corby Avenue spotted a man on probation in the passenger seat of the Mustang heading the opposition direction, and turned around to pull the car over, sheriff's Lt. Steve Brown said.

But the Mustang took off, and the detectives followed it as the car headed south and onto Highway 101, Brown said. The Mustang then cut across the lanes and exited at Todd Road, headed west and took a left onto Primrose Avenue, a dead-end street, Brown said.

The Mustang drove to the end of the avenue and continued driving into a field.

The Mustang's engine ignited, spreading to the field and sending the men running on foot, Brown said.

Fire crews battled the fast-moving fire with ground crews and an air tanker as deputies chased after the men.

The men were soon arrested. They were identified as driver Jesse James Lee, 38, of Rohnert Park and passenger Robert Lee Orr, 24, of Santa Rosa, Brown said.

Lee had three warrants for his arrest: two misdemeanor warrants for driving with a suspended license and possessing drug paraphernalia as well as a felony warrant for counterfeiting, forgery and narcotics possession, Brown said.

Lee was arrested on suspicion of evading arrest, resisting arrest and arson, Brown said. Orr was arrested on suspicion of resisting arrest, violating probation and arson, he said.

Fire crews from Santa Rosa, Rincon Valley, Rancho Adobe, Forestille, Rohnert Park and Cal Fire all contributed to the effort, Gossner said.

The fire retardant dropped by Cal Fire aircraft was instrumental in containing the fire, Gossner said.

“The crews did a fantastic job of making a stop, and Cal Fire helped tremendously,” Gossner said, praising the precision of the pilots. “They're good, man.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or OnTwitter@citybeater. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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