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Man Admits Setting Forest Fires for Profit : Courts: Authorities say the blazes were started to generate cash for businesses that dealt in firefighting equipment. More arrests are expected.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Trinity County man pleaded guilty Monday to setting three forest fires in 1992 as part of a plot to make money for companies that lease firefighting equipment to state and federal agencies.

Ernest Earl Ellison, who worked for his brother’s water truck business, admitted he had been paid by fire-suppression equipment owners to set the blazes, said U.S. Atty. Charles J. Stevens in Sacramento.

The U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI, the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry are continuing to investigate as many as a dozen other arson fires in Trinity County and more arrests are expected.

Authorities have long believed that some forest fires are set by arsonists with a financial incentive--seasonal firefighters, fire equipment owners or loggers who can salvage large quantities of singed timber.

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But arsonists can be hard to track down and prosecution of firebugs with a monetary motive has been rare. Stevens’ office, which has jurisdiction over much of Northern and Central California, has no record of similar convictions, a spokeswoman said.

Stevens declined to provide details of how authorities nabbed Ellison, citing the ongoing investigation. But in 1992, arson investigators concluded that a series of fires near the economically depressed town of Hayfork were deliberately set.

Nearly all the fires started on steep, inaccessible slopes off remote roads in heavily forested areas. Most of them also were set in the midafternoon, when brush and trees are driest.

The investigation now appears to center on small companies that rent water trucks for as much as $2,000 a day to state and federal agencies to fight fires--the same kind of firm where Ernest Ellison, 32, was employed by his brother, James.

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Ernest Ellison, a longtime resident of Hayfork, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit arson as part of a plea agreement. The largest of the three blazes he set consumed 20 acres; the other two charred less than two acres. All were contained quickly and did not result in any injuries or loss of any structures.

He faces a sentence of up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, but has agreed to cooperate with investigators in the hope of receiving a lighter sentence.

“We take these arson forest fire cases extremely seriously and will seek significant jail time for those involved,” Stevens said in a statement released by his office. “Leniency will be shown only to those who cooperate with authorities.”


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