The Fiery Touch

Wildfire arsonists burn forests, grasslands and houses -- and kill people. Now one faces the death penalty.

  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine

Page 3

Oyler did not appear to fit the standard profile for serial arsonists, which is similar to the one for serial killers: a white male blue-collar loner under the age of 27, with a history of being abused or ignored as a child, unable to establish relationships with women or stick with a job, and with no significant support group. Oyler, who had been raised in the Banning Pass area, worked in an auto shop in Beaumont. He learned his trade from his father, held steady jobs and was considered good at his work. There was no evidence that he been abused as a child. He'd had a series of relationships, fathering at least four children by three women, and spent a lot of time with family members, including three siblings. He was living with a girlfriend and their six-month-old child.

But Oyler was also an admitted drug user who had served time in state prison on charges related to drug possession. (He admitted only to using marijuana, but some of his relatives said he also used methamphetamine.) There were "full-sleeve" jailhouse tattoos of flames and skulls on both his arms, concealed under a suit jacket during his trial. If he fit any category of arsonist, investigators said, it was this one: Arson can act like a drug, creating excitement and the need for greater and greater stimulation.

The district attorney for Riverside County, Rod Pacheco, responding to public outrage, decided not only to file murder charges against Oyler, but also to seek the death penalty.

Wildfire arson has become an increasingly serious problem as the wildland-urban interface expands. In California, fire authorities have traced 7 to 12 percent of wildfires in recent years to arsonists. The picture varies depending on the locale, but extrapolating from California, arson likely accounts for 10,000 to 12,000 wildfires a year nationwide. In California alone in the past 10 years, 13 people have died in wildfires that were either confirmed or suspected arson.

But wildfire arson convictions don't come easily. Typically the crime scene is empty country; witnesses are few or nonexistent. The arsonist may be long gone by the time the flames spring to life, and the simple ignition devices are often destroyed; a single match is enough to start a blaze in light grass. Evidence is also often obliterated by firefighters hosing water, digging fireline and driving fire engines. And the wildland arsonist's motives are harder to fathom than those of his urban counterparts, who often ignite buildings simply to collect insurance or to kill a particular person.

For many decades, deliberately set wildfires were treated more as a nuisance than as a major crime. Rural communities not only tolerated arson in their backyards; they often practiced it as a cultural prerogative, to stimulate new grass on grazing land or to create jobs on fire crews.

The 1953 Rattlesnake Fire, which killed 15 firefighters in California's Mendocino National Forest, became a stark example of tolerance for wildfire arson. A young man named Stan Pattan, the ne'er-do-well son of a prominent Forest Service engineer, ignited it, hoping to find work on the fire crew. Pattan did get a job as a fire-camp cook, but raised the suspicions of an arson detective as he served the lawman breakfast. That was a different age: A grand jury refused even to indict Pattan for murder. He had not intended to kill anyone, people said, and make-work or "job fires," as they are still known, were part of country living, typically taking their toll in unoccupied forest where no one got hurt. Pattan confessed only after he was confronted with photos of the dead. "The pictures certainly helped break him," said the sheriff who arrested him. "When he saw those, I believe he realized for the first time what he had done." Pattan was only charged with two counts of "willful burning" and served just three years in San Quentin prison. Yet the Rattlesnake Fire set a lasting mark: Those 15 deaths remain the greatest loss of firefighters on a wildfire since 1953.

As wildfires occur more often in the wildland-urban interface, the penalties for arson have ratcheted upward. Until Oyler, the most notorious wildfire arsonist was probably Terry Lynn Barton, a seasonal Forest Service employee whose duties ironically included spotting smoke. Barton touched off Colorado's 2002 Hayman Fire, which burned a state record of 138,000 acres, destroying 133 homes and 466 other structures, and causing the evacuation of 8,000 people. One evacuee happened to be Edward Colt, the state court judge who later handled Barton's trial and gave her a long prison sentence (12 years, which was reduced to six after an appeal). Barton offered several explanations, including that she'd started the fire accidentally while burning a letter from her estranged husband, but investigators concluded that her actions were deliberate. She pled guilty to arson and served the six-year prison term -- for a fire that caused no major injuries, double the time that Pattan served for a fire that cost 15 lives.

Since then, many fire starters, intentional or otherwise, have discovered that the public is fed up. In 2004, for example, a man named Matt Rupp was driving his mower over a field of dry grass in Northern California on an especially hot day. A passerby suggested he stop, on account of the heat and drought conditions. Rupp reportedly responded, "Go to hell." Instead, he went to state prison after his mower blade hit a rock and sparked a fire that gutted 86 homes. Rupp was sentenced to four years and handed a bill for $2.5 million in damages. Even his defense attorney, Jean Marinovich, who said Rupp had been "hammered" by the judgment, acknowledged that sentences in such cases "have to be harsh enough for people to pay attention."

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