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Oroville man pleads no contest to starting Ponderosa Fire

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OROVILLE, Calif. - The man officials say is responsible for starting the Ponderosa Fire, which burned 4,000 acres in August of 2017, pled no contest to arson Wednesday and is now facing up to 14 years, 4 months in prison. 

According to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, John Edward Ballenger, 30, from Oroville, pled no contest to arson and admitted to an enhancement that his reckless arson burned multiple structures. 

Ballenger was accused of illegally camping on what he believed to be his family property next to Sucker Run creek near the Ponderosa Dam on the South Fork of the Feather River. Ramsey said Ballenger told Cal Fire arson investigators that he had been camping on the creek for approximately a month at which time he had an illegal campfire that he never put out. 

Ballenger also said he let the campfire smolder during the day which made it easier to start back up each night because "he had no matches". 

Investigators said on August 29, Ballenger reheated a breakfast of potatoes over his campfire and then left the fire burning when he went for a walk upstream. Investigators determined the flames died down but the embers remained hot and glowing and they escaped and began to burn vegetation surrounding the fire.

Investigators said the fire moved uphill, away from the campfire, and found heavier vegetation allowing it to begin burning stronger and take off in areas which had not been touched by fire in over 70 years. 

Ballenger told investigators he hid under a boulder until Cal Fire investigators came to his camp site. 

The fire burned 32 homes and 23 structures. 4,016 acres burned between August 29 and September 23.

Ballenger is scheduled to be sentenced on January 26, 2018 and victims of the fire will be allowed to speak. 

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