For many decades, the practice of lighting fires in wildlands to clear brush, improve browse, or to create jobs for fire crews was virtually a prerogative of rural living. For the most part, nobody got hurt and nobody went to jail.
In the past decade, however, as a more urban-oriented population has spread into previously wild lands, the toll in lost lives and property from wildfire arson has mounted and tolerance for the practice has turned to outrage. Today, anyone who starts a wildland fire, whether it’s done deliberately or through negligence, faces the possibility of a huge fine, a jail term or even –– in extreme cases –– the death penalty.
In Southern California this summer, a jury convicted Rickie Lee Fowler -- whose own lawyer described him as “despicable” -- of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson for setting the 2003 Old Fire in San Bernardino County. The jury next must decide whether to recommend the death penalty. The Fowler case is only the latest example of the trend toward stiffer punishments. In part, the movement is fueled by hotter, bigger and more destructive fires: but the key element is the expansion of the wildland-urban interface, which brings more people into contact with previously wild lands and almost inevitably with fire.
Human-caused wildfires have increased in number right along with the expansion of the 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.
The Fowler case is an unusual one, because all five victims died of heart attacks, one of them a week after being evacuated from the fire, and also because Fowler has a lengthy record of violent crimes: He is already serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for jailhouse sodomy.
The imposition of the death penalty for wildland arson has a precedent, one linked to another Southern California fire. 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. That blaze wiped out a five-man Forest Service engine crew sent to fight the fire: There was no reason for the crew to be where they were, on an exposed ridge face, except to defend a few scattered homes.
By contrast, a California grand jury refused even to indict a man on second-degree murder charges, even though he’d confessed to setting the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire, which killed 15 firefighters. Stan Pattan, son of a respected Forest Service engineer, had not intended to kill anyone, people said, and had set the blaze only to find work on the fire crew. He did land a job serving breakfast, but his behavior caused an arson detective to become suspicious and led to his arrest. Pattan served three years in San Quentin on felony charges of willful burning.
Before Oyler’s case, perhaps the most notorious modern wildfire arsonist was Terry Lynn Barton, a seasonal Forest Service employee. Barton admitted setting the 2002 Hayman Fire, at that time the largest in Colorado’s history, which destroyed 133 houses, burned 38,114 acres, and forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 people. Barton served a six-year prison term, double the time Pattan had served for the Rattlesnake Fire.
Since the Barton case, penalties have stiffened for accidental fire starts. Power companies have been fined millions of dollars for line failures that resulted in fires. Citizens have been jailed and fined for starting fires with lawnmowers. And a Forest Service fire management officer went to jail for setting two small fires to burn brush and give his crew a bit of work. The list goes on and on.
As wildland fires grow in intensity, frequency and destructiveness, and are 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 a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). His fourth book on fire, The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, will be available in February. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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