Op ed: People who start wildfires should be held accountable
There is a growing intolerance by courts and citizens for wildfire arson, whether deliberate or negligent.
Special to The Times
ON Monday, a jury will return to a courtroom in Southern California to decide whether they'll recommend the death penalty for Rickie Lee Fowler, after convicting him of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson for setting the 2003 Old Fire in San Bernardino County.
The Fowler case sends a signal to the rest of the country about the growing intolerance by courts and citizens for wildfire arson, whether deliberate or negligent.
The San Bernardino prosecutor's case was difficult, because the five male victims died from heart attacks, in one case more than a week after being evacuated from the fire scene. A county medical examiner told the jury, however, that "to a reasonable medical certainty" all the men died from stress related to the fire, which destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and burned more than 91,000 acres. Fowler, already serving a 75-year-to-life term for jailhouse sodomy, admitted that he was present when the fire was set but denied lighting it.
People responsible for igniting wildfires increasingly are facing stiff fines, jail time and even the death penalty. In 2009, Raymond Oyler, convicted of five counts of first-degree murder for setting the Esperanza Fire of 2006, was the first person ever to be sentenced to death for wildfire arson. The blaze wiped out a five-man Forest Service engine crew sent to fight it.
By contrast, in 1953 a grand jury in California refused to indict on second-degree murder charges a man who confessed to setting the Rattlesnake Fire, which killed 15 firefighters. Stan Pattan, son of a respected Forest Service engineer, had not intended to kill anyone, people said. In those days, setting fires in unoccupied forest in order to find work on a fire crew, as Pattan did, was part of country living, and typically, no one got hurt. Pattan served three years in San Quentin on felony charges of willful burning.
The state of Washington has its own problems with human-caused fires. The Taylor Bridge fire near Cle Elum, which may have been caused by construction work, has burned scores of homes and more than 22,000 acres. The construction company is reportedly cooperating, but whoever started the fire could be held responsible for the multimillion-dollar cost of fighting it.
The Thirtymile Fire in north-central Washington in 2001, which killed four firefighters, was human caused and remains under investigation. A chunk of hot dog from the abandoned campfire that started the fire yielded a DNA sample that one day may be matched. The fire's chief arson detective told me that the most serious charge might be negligent burning. Depending on the jury verdict in San Bernardino this week, a future prosecutor might consider negligent manslaughter.
Human-caused wildfires have increased in number right along with the expansion of the wildland-urban interface, though reliable figures are hard to come by. There are as many as 120,000 wildland fires a year nationwide, and arson probably accounts for about 10 percent of them.
According to arson investigators, only about 10 percent of wildfire arson cases are prosecuted, though a single prosecution may account for a string of fires. The problem is deadly serious: In California alone, 13 people died from confirmed or suspected arson wildfires in the first decade of the new century.
As wildland fires grow in intensity, frequency, and destructiveness, made worse by drought, climate change, past forestry practices and the spread of human development, anything that can reduce the problem should be welcomed.
Long prison terms and the death penalty may not deter arsonists, but they do take fire starters off the street and caution anyone outdoors in extreme conditions to think twice about what they are doing.
John N. Maclean is the author of "The Thirtymile Fire." "The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57," will be available in February.