Man sets self on fire at park

By Alex MacLean, The Union Democrat

A 54-year-old Sonora man attempted suicide Wednesday afternoon by lighting himself on fire near Columbia State Historic Park.

Authorities have not yet released the man's identity. He suffered severe burns over much of his body.

The Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office received a report from California Highway Patrol emergency dispatchers about 2:30 p.m., stating that a man calling from a cell phone said he wanted to set himself on fire and made other incoherent statements, according to Sheriff's Sgt. Matt Zelinsky.

Calls from cell phones are automatically routed to CHP dispatchers, who direct them to the appropriate local law enforcement agencies.

Sheriff's dispatchers triangulated the location of the call to the Columbia State Historic Park area, where deputies responded and began a search for the man, Zelinsky said.

The search led deputies to an area about 20 yards off Highway 49 at the south entrance of the park known for its many rock enclaves. Zelinsky said they found the man hiding in a small cave about 3:30 p.m.

Zelinsky said deputies tried to talk the man out of the cave, but he told them to stay back and claimed to have a gun.

The man emerged shortly after carrying a plastic Canada Dry bottle containing a clear flammable liquid that he poured on himself. He then lighted himself on fire with a plastic lighter and was instantly engulfed in flames, Zelinsky said.

One of the deputies grabbed a fire extinguisher from his patrol car and put the flames out within seconds, according to Zelinsky. State park rangers also helped deputies extinguish the man and prevent surrounding brush from catching fire, Zelinsky added.

A gun was not found after further investigation around the cave.

Tuolumne County Fire Department and Columbia Fire Protection District engines, an ambulance and multiple Sheriff's units, including Sheriff Jim Mele and Undersheriff Keith Lunney, responded to the scene.

The man was taken by ambulance to Sonora Regional Medical Center. From there he was expected to be flown by helicopter to an out-of-county hospital with a burn treatmentcenter, Zelinksy said.

While being placed in the ambulance, the man could be heard making suicidal comments to paramedics.

Zelinsky said he wasn't sure about the degree of the man's burns, but it appeared as though he burned the majority of his body.

The man's name was not released because he was placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold, also known as a "51-50," which Zelinsky said prohibited the Sheriff's Office from revealing his identity.

The man will be medically treated and his mental health evaluated, Zelinsky said. The Sheriff's Office didn't have plans to file any criminal charges.

"There's no real crime involved here," he said.

No park visitors were questioned as witnesses, according to Zelinsky, and none were standing around the parking lot while sheriff's personnel investigated the incident.

Most fire and law enforcement units had left the area by about 4:15 p.m.

The Union Democrat
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