Santa Rosa, CA – Jail cell arson fire contained with help from sprinkler system

Deputies forced their way into a smoke-filled room at the Sonoma County Jail Monday morning and grabbed an inmate who’d barricaded himself inside, threatened jail staff and started a fire by sticking something into an electrical outlet, according to the Sheriff’s Office.  The incident sent the inmate, identified as Bernabe Martinez Ramirez, 16 jail staff members and four other inmates to the hospital for smoke inhalation, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum said.

In February, Ramirez, 27, was placed into a segregated jail housing unit after he allegedly stabbed another inmate with a hairbrush that was filed to a sharp point, resulting in an attempted murder charge, Crum said. He was originally booked into jail in connection with a June 2017 case that resulted in felony charges of hit and run, obstructing police and attempting to take a gun from an officer.

Inmates like Ramirez are moved into such housing units when they engage in bad behavior such as getting into fights or when they are a risk to staff members, Crum said. They have no physical contact with other inmates, though they can talk to each other from their cells. Trouble at the jail started at about 9 a.m., when Ramirez was alone and taking a scheduled break near his cell in a common room, where inmates segregated from the others have access one by one to amenities like a TV, a bathroom and phone, Crum said.

Deputies noticed Ramirez was tying bed sheets from one door handle to the next, preventing them from opening doors into the room, Crum said. He also covered the room’s floor with soap and pried a manual pencil sharpener off a wall and put it into a sock, using it to threaten correctional staff that watched from a window nearby. “The deputies weren’t going to charge in there and possibly get injured,” Crum said.

A crisis negotiation team was called in and team members spent about 40 minutes trying to talk with him. Meanwhile, Ramirez grabbed toilet paper, another object which the Crum declined to disclose for security reasons, and used it to spark a fire from an electrical outlet.

“He’s able to start a fire and he starts lighting a bunch of toilet paper, sheets and clothing on fire,” Crum said, adding that Ramirez also broke down a wooden cabinet and added it to the flames. “We’re not going to disclose (the object) because we don’t want to see this behavior continue with other inmates.”

The smoke from the small fire activated the facility’s sprinkler system, dousing the room with water. About 15 to 20 deputies stormed into the jail common area, taking Ramirez into custody and using fire extinguishers to put out the flames. The jail was placed on lockdown following the fire, keeping visitors from meeting with inmates.

Santa Rosa firefighters initially dispatched to the jail for a medical aid call at 10:10 a.m. also helped put out the flames, learning of the incident as they were being escorted into the facility to treat an inmate, Santa Rosa fire Battalion Chief Mark Basque said.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s property investigators, which are trained in arson cases, will take the lead in the fire investigation, though Santa Rosa Fire Department investigators will help, Crum said. The common area where the fires were started does not have video surveillance cameras installed, he said.

Roughly 24 inmates living in the housing unit were evacuated and evaluated following the fire, as well as numerous officers. The officers were taken to Kaiser Permanente hospital, while the inmates were transported to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, Basque said. None of the medical issues were serious, he said.

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