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'Despite rising fire fears, college fire crew sits idle

The victim reported being punched, kicked and beaten in January, but a search warrant wasn't issued for two months and still, nearly a half-year later, no arrests have been made.

Pursuit of the case against several Columbia College firefighters who may have hazed a 19-year-old recruit is clearly a case of justice in the slow lane.

As Tuolumne County District Attorney Donald Segerstrom reviews the Sheriff's Office's lengthy investigation, those responsible for what was by some accounts a brutal and criminal initiation into the college fire department have yet to be charged. And the reported victim, a 19-year-old probationary firefighter who told investigators he was forced to drink large quantities of beer, then beaten by department veterans at an off-campus party in Crystal Falls, still waits for his complaint to bring action.

But delays, uncertainty and clouds of suspicion may not be the most serious consequence in this case. Fire and real clouds of smoke, especially if they are anywhere near the college, may come at a price no one should pay.

In what local officials say may be the most dangerous fire seasons in years, the ongoing hazing case has all but paralyzed the Columbia College Fire Department.

Cal Fire and the Tuolumne County Fire Department have prohibited college firefighters from responding to off-campus fires — even if they are just across Sawmill Flat Road from the college entrance. Until probes into the case conclude, the department may answer only the very few fire and emergency calls from within the campus boundaries.

On some levels, this makes sense: If investigators determine that supervisors didn't do their jobs or looked the other way, they should be dismissed. If student firefighters are proven responsible for hazing, they don't belong on the force.

Until the slate is wiped clean and justice is done, the college fire department remains under suspicion. Confining its members to campus, at least back in January, seemed reasonable.

But who knew that more than five months would pass and winter would turn to spring and then to a tinder-dry summer before action in the case came?

Not only are the victim, the potential suspects and the entire college department in limbo, but the public is being penalized.

College firefighters earlier this month could not respond to a fire only a mile from campus, leaving the property owner who reported it frustrated and angry. Meanwhile, hit by graduation, summer vacation and the lingering hazing allegations, the department's volunteer membership has plummeted.

"It's disappointing that this process has taken as long as it has," understated college spokesman Doug Lau.

In their defense, the Sheriff's Office and DA point out that the case is complex and many factors must be weighed in deciding whether to bring charges. District Attorney Segerstrom said his own staff is "still digging" into information provided by investigators — including CDs, photographs and written material seized in the March search.

But as he digs, fire conditions — as evidenced by the horrific Tahoe fire — worsen.

Ideally, charges will be filed soon, restrictions will be lifted and the college's firefighters will be free to help counterparts around Tuolumne County. But if delays continue, Cal Fire and the county fire department should themselves lift the ban in the interests of public safety.

After all, we regularly welcome the help of prison inmate crews in fighting fire. Homeowners in the path of a fire probably aren't going to question the aid of a few trained student firefighters who may or may not have been involved in a hazing incident more than five months ago.

We trust that justice delayed won't be justice denied in this case. But in no case should delays put the public at peril.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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