Some notable arson wildfire cases in the West
by Ray Ring and John N. Maclean
Arson wildfires in the West -- a map of some notable examples.
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1953 In California's Mendocino National Forest, Stanford Pattan threw a lit match out of his car window to create a fire-camp job for himself. The Rattlesnake Fire burned 1,300 acres and killed 15 firefighters as they tried to outrun wind-driven flames. Pattan pled guilty to two felony counts of "willful burning" and served three years in prison.
1995 Sixty-year-old Charmian "Charm" Joy Glassman used a cigarette lighter to start at least five small wildfires along a highway near Mount Shasta, Calif., trying to create work for her firefighter son. Though only about five acres burned, she was charged with five counts of arson. She pled guilty and was sentenced to 120 days in jail and ordered to pay more than $35,000 in restitution to cover the cost of the investigation.
1996 Jeffrey Alan Avila paid a guy $2,000 to start a blaze near Big Sur, Calif., and then made $80,000 by renting firefighting equipment to the U.S. Forest Service. The fire burned 25,000 acres and five houses. Avila pled guilty to arson and was sentenced to five years in prison; the man he hired was sentenced to slightly over three years.
2001 Richard Mortensen and Frank Brady, who were running a rural California meth lab, were charged with second-degree murder for starting a fire that spread through 242 acres of brush; two pilots died when their air tankers collided above the fire. A jury found the suspects guilty of lesser charges, and they were sentenced to at least seven years in prison.
2002 Terry Lynn Barton, a seasonal Forest Service worker, ignited Colorado's Hayman Fire, which burned 138,000 acres and 133 houses -- the largest fire in Colorado's recorded history. Barton said she was burning a letter from her estranged husband when the flames escaped from a campfire ring. Investigators found matches in a suspicious array at the scene and no ashes indicating a letter had been burned. Barton pled guilty to arson and served six years in prison.
2002 Leonard Gregg, an occasional Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighter, started the Rodeo Fire on an Arizona Apache reservation, hoping to get a job on the fire crew. It spread rapidly and combined with the Chediski Fire, which was started by a woman whose car ran out of gas in the forest. (She wanted to draw the attention of a TV news helicopter to get rescued.) The Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned 467,000 acres and 491 houses -- the largest fire in Arizona's recorded history. Gregg was found guilty of arson-related charges, sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $28 million in restitution.
2003 The Old Fire in California's San Bernardino Mountains burned 91,000 acres and about a thousand houses; it was also blamed for the fatal heart attacks of at least five people. In October 2009, Rickie Lee Fowler, by then a 28-year-old prison inmate doing time for burglary, was charged with arson and five counts of murder. Fowler's trial is scheduled to begin in August; prosecutors say they'll seek the death penalty.
2004 Van Bateman, a respected Forest Service fire crew boss who had 30 years of experience around the West, was charged with arson for setting two small fires (total 22.6 acres) in Arizona's Coconino National Forest without proper authorization. Bateman said it was a common practice among fire crews who want to thin vegetation without the hassle of paperwork. According to the Arizona Daily Sun, Bateman told investigators, "The line between a good fireman and an arsonist is a fine line." He pled guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to two years in prison.
2006 Volunteer firefighter Robert Eric Eason was charged with setting at least a dozen wildfires that burned a thousand acres of grass and 200 sheep in Northern California. More than 70 investigators worked the case and Eason was suspected of setting hundreds of fires. A jury found him guilty of arson and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
2006 Southern California's Esperanza Fire burned 41,000 acres and dozens of houses and killed five firefighters. In 2009, Raymond Lee Oyler was convicted of arson and murder and sentenced to death.
2007 At least five suspected arsonists were arrested in connection with more than a dozen fires that raged from San Diego to Los Angeles, burning more than 500,000 acres and 1,800 houses and killing at least eight people, including homeowners and illegal immigrants who were camped in the desert scrub. Another suspect, Russell Lane Daves, rammed his pickup truck into a police car and was shot dead by police.
2009 Two firefighters drove their truck off a cliff and died while battling the Station Fire north of Los Angeles. Investigators view the fire, which spread to 160,000 acres and destroyed 89 houses, as an arson and homicide case. They're offering a $150,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.
2010 On June 17, federal prosecutors filed arson charges against two eastern Oregon ranchers: Dwight Lincoln Hammond, Jr., 68, and his 41-year-old son, Steven Dwight Hammond. The indictment says the ranchers ignited many fires in the Steens Mountain area over the past 28 years, burning at least 45,000 acres total, because they were frustrated with federal land managers for not setting enough controlled burns to stimulate grass for livestock. The suspects face potential sentences of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
This is a sidebar to a cover story headlined, "The Fiery Touch."© High Country News