California man gets word of pardon after fire destroys home

Published 8:25 am Wednesday, November 28, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — An unexpected phone call brought a bright spot to a dark moment in Jason James Burnett’s life, offering a small measure of relief from the sadness of losing his California home to the nation’s worst wildfire in a century.

It was the governor’s office. His criminal record had finally been wiped clean.

Gov. Jerry Brown announced last week that he had granted Burnett a pardon, exactly 24 years after he was sentenced to jail time and probation for a drug conviction he received as a young man.

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The call came less than two weeks after the fire tore through swaths of Northern California, killing dozens and reducing the town of Paradise, where Burnett lived with his wife and teenage daughter, to rubble.

“With what I’m going through, getting that call, it made me happy,” he said. “It was the best news I’d had in a couple of weeks.”

Burnett, 44, had applied last year to have his conviction cleared. But when Brown announced who was getting pardons and commutations last spring, Burnett wasn’t on the list.

The, just before Thanksgiving, the outgoing governor said Burnett was among 38 people receiving pardons. It was first reported by the Sacramento Bee .

“I’d had my hopes up for a year,” Burnett said. “And then a week ago, I got the call.”

A spokesman for Brown, Evan Westrup, said in an email that the wildfire played no role in the decision to pardon Burnett, adding that the governor’s office only learned he had lost his home when they called to tell him the good news.

It reached him at an especially vulnerable time.

The fire had consumed the house he had lived in for 18 years, ever since he completed rehab and moved to Paradise. Burnett said his wife arrived at the house just in time to rescue the family dog. Fleeing the flames, she called Burnett to say goodbye in case she didn’t make it out alive.

Burnett hasn’t been back to survey the damage. His family has been staying with relatives in nearby Chico. But a friend who works for the local power company sent photos. Everything was destroyed.

“One picture was just, the house was completely to the ground,” he said.

“Coming from where I came from, I had absolutely nothing,” Burnett said, his voice beginning to waver. “And over the last 20 years I worked hard, and to think I have to redo it, rebuild again is hard to deal with.”

Burnett grew up in Oroville, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Paradise, with two parents who were addicted to drugs. His father was in and out prison, he said.

“I haven’t seen him since I was 8 years old,” Burnett said. “I grew up knowing that stuff. I was part of that environment.”

But the move to Paradise gave Burnett fresh start. He started a family and his own business, a roofing company. The pardon, he said, is recognition of how far he’s come.

“It’s about putting one foot in front of the other,” he said.

On Monday, Burnett said an offer he had put on a house in Chico had been accepted, restoring some stability to his family in a turbulent time. But he said he plans to return to Paradise and rebuild.

“I consider Paradise my hometown,” he said, “because that’s where I changed my life.”