Ever since, law enforcement officials have been trying to bring the man to justice, so far to no avail.
Although most Southern California wildfires are not deliberately set, arsons attract a lot of official attention. Two of last week's 35 fires have been officially determined to have been deliberately set, including the 25,000-acre Santiago fire in Orange County.
This weekend, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once again promised that the state would catch and punish the arsonists.
"We will hunt down the people responsible for that. We will not fail," he said. "If I were one of those people who started the fire, I would not sleep soundly."
If history is any guide, making good on that promise will require not only diligent investigation, but some unexpected breaks.
"A little luck never hurts," said April Carroll, a special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who specializes in arson. "Fortunately, the criminal sometimes messes up. They become cocky. They make a mistake. And hopefully you're there to catch them."
If good fortune fails to intervene, the hunt can be long and frustrating. Arson investigators usually have the deck stacked against them from the beginning, said San Bernardino County Sheriff's homicide Sgt. Frank Bell, who's leading the still-active Old fire investigation.
"The No. 1 difficulty in solving an arson is that certain evidence is immediately destroyed," he said. "That physical evidence we're so used to finding in homicides is rapidly gone around the point of the fire's origin. If not destroyed, it's altered significantly. The second difficulty is witnesses. The arsonist usually finds a place where there's no one else around to start a fire, and then they leave."
In the case of the Santiago fire, which burned 14 homes in Orange County last week, authorities are looking for a white Ford F-150 pickup truck with tubular chrome running boards that was seen near the fire's source about the time it began last Sunday.
The fire started at two places "a little bit apart," said Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather. "The person or people who did this are exceptionally lucky, or they have some knowledge of when they can do the most damage when you set a fire."
In the case of the Old fire, investigators also started with what seemed to be some good leads.
Three eyewitnesses saw someone in the van the day the fire started. They helped authorities draw a composite sketch. The sketch received widespread publicity -- and investigators spent the next three months checking out thousands of tips.
In January 2004, San Bernardino County sheriff's investigators were contacted by an individual who pointed them to a white van in Los Angeles County that the informant said was used to start the Old fire. Investigators came to believe they now had the van, and began to focus their case on a man in his 20s.
A law enforcement source told The Times last week that the suspect is in jail on an unrelated conviction. Detectives also believe there was a second man inside the van, the driver, but have not identified him. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
However, without the driver's identity or anyone else able to place the man inside the van at the hour the fire started, the San Bernardino County district attorney has lacked the evidence to file any criminal charges, law enforcement sources said. But in recent months, the source said, federal prosecutors have begun to look at the case.
Investigators faced a similar situation in 1993 while trying to solve that year's Malibu fire, which destroyed 350 homes and killed three people.
Witnesses placed two young men at the fire's origin point, Carroll said. Through interviews, investigators felt strongly that the pair, both volunteer firefighters seeking full-time jobs, were responsible.