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Caretaker accused of assaulting firefighter during battle for observatory

- Also called a hero, he says charges are phony

By CHRIS COUNTS

Published: December 19, 2008

THE CARETAKER of a Carmel Valley observatory is facing criminal charges for allegedly interfering with firefighters during last summer’s Big Sur wildfires.

But Ivan Eberle, a noted wildlife photographer, says he was just trying to defend the observatory, which is also his home, and that the charges he’s facing are payback for his criticism of the way firefighters acted as the flames marched up Chews Ridge.

Eberle received a commendation and a $1,000 gift from the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy for his “heroic actions” that day, which were credited with helping to save the observatory from the Big Sur wildfires.

Yet five days after receiving the commendation and gift, Eberle was charged with two misdemeanors by the Monterey Sheriff’s Office. The crimes the Monterey Sheriff’s Office believes Eberle committed allegedly were carried out July 12, the same day as his “heroic actions.”

“He battered a firefighter and interfered with a firefighting crew,” said Sgt. Dennis English.

Eberle is charged with violating section 243 (B) of the California Penal Code, which states that it is a crime to commit battery against a firefighter in the performance of his or her duty. He is also charged with violating section 148.2, subdivision 3 of the same code, which makes it a crime to interfere with a firefighter in the line of duty.

So is it possible to be a hero and a villain on the same day — and perhaps even at the same moment? The sheriff’s office and the Monterey County District Attorney offered few details other than confirming Jan. 21 as the date of a pretrial hearing. But Eberle told The Pine Cone his account of events he believes led to the charges, which he insisted are bogus.

“I’m convinced this began either as retaliation or to discredit me before I could get any traction as a whistle blower,” Eberle said. “I was the only guy behind the fire’s closure line [on Chews Ridge] with a camera and an Internet connection. I’m a published photojournalist of more than 20 years who had just witnessed firefighters losing containment, and who’d just posted alarming details to my neighbors, warning of the grave danger headed their way when they were being given false assurances by the official public information officer spin-doctors.”

Eberle called the charges against him “ironic” and “truly bizarre.”

“The battery allegation charge stems from a sleep-deprived hotshot stepping around a blind corner directly into my path while I was sprinting to unroll fire hose from my facility’s hydrant,” he remembered. “A 75-foot tongue of flames from [the firefighter’s] escaped and now-crowning backfire was a mere 20-foot fuel-break away from reaching a dense stand of pines leading directly to my exposed propane tanks. If he brushed my hose as I pivoted and went by, well, there certainly was no ill intent on my part. I only wish I could say the same of the hotshots.”

Eberle was critical of a group of firefighters he claimed refused to help him save the observatory, which is also his home.

“What I next experienced could best be described as willful negligence or dereliction of duty,” he suggested. “None of these fire-igniting hotshots offered me help in knocking down the flames and then mopping up over the next couple of hours.”

A few hours after beating back the flames, Eberle complained to fire officials about the actions of front-line firefighters — complaints he says brought retaliation.

“My apparent payback for all this was a visit the next day from six sheriff’s deputies, concluding with the stern warning that I’d be subject to arrest and removal were I so much as to speak with another firefighter.”

Eberle insisted he did nothing wrong.

“I do feel my constitutional rights were violated to an egregious degree, but I’m grateful simply to be alive, given the summer’s devastation,” he added. “I have no doubt about mounting a successful legal defense, but I also have no illusions about how time-consuming and expensive this can be. Maybe some good can come of it, when everything’s said and done. If a light can be shed and firefighting policy amended, it might prove worthwhile.”

For the past seven years, Eberle has served as the caretaker of the MIRA observatory, which is located along Tassajara Road at an elevation of about 5,000-feet. As a photographer, Eberle has had his work published in Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, Monterey Bay Magazine, The Carmel Pine Cone and The Monterey County Herald.