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Court cases involving wildfire arson

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Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area Fire in Forest Lake, Minnesota

photo showing burned acreage at the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area

On April 6, 2009, a Forest Lake, Minnesota, volunteer firefighter shot fireworks from his vehicle, igniting a grassy field at the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. The fire quickly spread, burning more than 1,500 acres.

A father and daughter visiting the wildlife refuge witnessed the fireworks coming from the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 with the license plate information. A canine from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) assisted with identifying evidence.

The accused man was arrested that evening while fighting the fire he had set earlier. Due to past convictions of theft, felony check forgery, and issuing a bomb threat, the suspect failed a routine background check when he applied to the fire department, but the local mayor allowed him to be hired. The defendant was convicted in January 2011 and sentenced in March 2011 to 80 days in jail along with paying $76,000 in restitution.

Down East Fires in Washington County, Maine

The Maine Forest Service, Jonesboro District Office, conducted a lengthy investigation of wildland arson during the 2011 fire season based a pattern they noticed with intentionally set wildland fires in 2010 but couldn’t conclusively determine those responsible. This fire pattern continued in 2011 when witnesses stated that a vehicle matching the description of the suspect was noticed racing away from several fire scenes.

The suspected arsonist was a member of several fire departments in the area and Maine Forest Rangers observed a repetition of involvement. Oftentimes he was quick to a fire scene, or he would call Rangers to offer his assistance but be found close by to other fire starts in the same time frame.

During investigations of individual fires, Rangers found fire scenes lacking evidence with assumptions made that the suspect was using a lighter to start the fires. Fires were often started well off of road systems, in numerous spots within 1/4- or 1/2-mile areas. It was also found that fires were started in slash piles or in large open meadows.

Tire track impressions were left on-scene and collected, and they were later matched to the defendant’s vehicle. Surveillance cameras were also used to track the suspect, which led to a warrant being obtained to install a tracking device on his vehicle. This tracking device ultimately helped Rangers obtain enough evidence to conduct a search warrant for the suspect’s residence and vehicle, where evidence was found to link him to the five wildland fires that he was charged with.

The Maine Forest Service worked cooperatively with the Maine Fire Marshal, Maine State Police, Washington County Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, and the Pleasant Point Police Department in order to conclude the investigation. The quick response to the fires by Maine Forest Rangers was instrumental in keeping damage to a minimum.

The defendant pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal mischief charge, while the five counts of arson were dismissed in a plea agreement in Washington County Superior Court. He was sentenced to nine months in jail for the charge and an additional nine for a probation violation on a previous charge along with bail conditions and probation until 2017. In the 1990’s, the same man was found guilty on three other arson charges in central Maine and spent considerable time in jail for these crimes.

Esperanza Fire in Cabazon, California in Riverside County

The October 2006 Santa Ana wind-driven Esperanza Fire burned more than 40,000 acres and destroyed 34 houses and 20 outbuildings before it was contained. It resulted in the deaths of five USFS firefighters. The damage the fire caused was estimated at more than $9 million.

The suspect, from nearby Beaumont, used a combination of matches and cigarettes to start a fire in Cabazon at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains and used a slingshot to launch incendiary devices into the brush. He was convicted on March 6, 2009 of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson, and 17 counts of using an incendiary device and was sentenced to death.

Mark Twain National Forest in Rolla, Missouri

On June 28, 2012 the Quad County Fire Department responded to a wildfire on Iron County Road 73. Federal firefighters were brought in from three states to assist the local fire department along with air tankers dropping retardant to slow the spread. Before the East End wildfire was controlled 14 days later, it had burned 622 acres of Mark Twain National Forest.

A U.S. Forest Service (USFS) law enforcement officer investigated the scene. Initially, no evidence was recovered, but based on interviews with the fire chief and incident commander, arson was suspected.

Empty Natural Light beer cans were discarded near the point of origin. During interviews with nearby residents, Natural Light beer cans were observed in the front yard and trash barrels of a residence approximately 1 mile from the point of origin. When first interviewed, the residents claimed no knowledge of the wildfire cause.

In subsequent interviews, a male resident was increasingly uncomfortable and tried to point investigators toward other possible causes. In a telephone interview, the male resident finally admitted that he “stopped up there, saw a piece of paper and I lit it. I done it, I just don’t want to go to jail. I did it to kill the ticks.”

On Aug. 20, 2013, subsequent to entering a guilty plea, the arsonist received the following sentence in the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Missouri: (1) five years supervised probation, (2) two weeks community service, and (3) court ordered restitution to be paid to the USFS for the amount of $469,652 to cover suppression costs of the East End wildfire.

Old Fire in San Bernardino, California

On Aug. 15, 2012, a jury convicted the accused arsonist on five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson in connection with setting the Old Fire in San Bernardino, California. The Old Fire was set on Oct. 25, 2003 in the San Bernardino Mountains. It burned 91,281 acres and destroyed more than 900 homes over a nine-day period.

The suspect started the fire by throwing a lit flare from a vehicle. The five people died from heart attacks due to the stress of the fire and the loss of their homes. In January 2013, nearly a decade after the fire, the convicted arsonist was sentenced to death.

Sunnyside Turnoff Fire in Warm Springs, Oregon

photo showing brush burning on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation

The Sunnyside Turnoff Fire burned more than 50,000 acres in July 2013 on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The fire was started when a female tribal member tossed a firework from a vehicle, which set brush and timber on fire. She was caught after boasting on her Facebook page, writing, “Like my fire?” She told investigators that her firefighter friends were bored and needed work, but she didn't think the fire would be that big.

The investigation was led by the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Special Wildland Arson Investigation Team and the Warm Springs Police Department. She pleaded guilty to arson involving brush and timber in May 2014 and was sentenced to 1 1/2 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $7,901,973, the cost to fight the fire, in restitution.

Ware, Charlton and Brantley County Fires in Georgia

photo showing burned acreage in Georgia

On June 5, 2015, a suspect from Waycross, Georgia was charged with 13 counts of arson of lands, a felony, in connection with a series of fires in Ware, Charlton and Brantley counties between May 6 and 13, 2015.

“Georgia Forestry Commission investigators worked very closely with a number of partner agencies to secure warrants and find this suspect,” said Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) Assistant Chief of Law Enforcement Billy Leitch. According to Leitch, the man is a suspect in 13 intentionally set fires that burned more than 100 acres. Seven fires occurred in Ware County, five in Charlton County, and one in Brantley County. The investigation is ongoing, and additional charges are expected.

“Due to multiple search warrants issued across several jurisdictions, numerous law enforcement agencies were engaged,” Leitch said. “In addition to Ware County Sheriff’s Deputies, others involved represent the Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Charlton, Brantley and Pierce County Sheriff’s Office and the Ware County Fire Department. Georgians can be proud of the way these professionals work together to support law enforcement in our state.”

Arson is the third leading cause of wildfires in Georgia and GFC forestry investigators have full arrest and enforcement authority in the state. They are specially trained to conduct wildland fire investigations and other forestry related crimes. An average of 700 arson fires, which burn approximately 9,000 acres, are recorded in Georgia annually.

The convicted arsonist plead guilty and was convicted of six charges of arson of lands in the third degree and one charge of arson of lands in the second degree for the fires in Ware County. He was sentenced to 15 years, with one year confinement and the remaining 14 on probation, and was ordered to pay $25,168 in restitution and an additional $3,500 in fines.

Warriors Path Fire in Flat Lick, Kentucky

It wasn’t sleight of hand but more a matter of following the nose. Magic, a K-9 wildfire arson dog, and his Kentucky Department of Corrections handlers, Adam Sloan and Josh Brock, were called to help investigate an April 2015 fire on Warrior’s Path in Knox County, near Stinking Creek.

The Division of Forestry (KDF) personnel determined where the wildfire had started but were uncertain who or how it began. While the KDF Knox County fire crew worked at the head of the fire, trying to keep the fire away from homes, the K-9 unit started its investigation at the fire’s point of origin — a fence that had been cleared below the blacktop road. Investigators found barbed wire rolls and a fencing tool present at the origin. Magic immediately traced the scent back down the road to a black Mazda truck parked in a shed at a nearby home.

The Kentucky State Police (KSP) were notified and responded quickly. An arson investigator for KSP questioned several individuals in the area, including a person of interest who had driven the truck. The driver admitted to setting the fire trying to burn out a fence row. KDF did not issue a citation for burning and allowing the fire to escape. The division did notify the driver that he would receive a bill for the cost to the state for controlling the fire.

“It was impressive that the dog took the scent from the fencing tool and followed the scent several hundred feet down the road to the person of interest's truck and then house,” said Division Director Leah MacSwords. “The person responsible for the fire actually left the scene in a vehicle, and Magic was still able to track him.”