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10 face federal counts over blazes

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Times Staff Writer

Mentally ill and a loner, Steven Emory Butcher camped in Southern California’s forests because he didn’t like to be around people, according to a federal prosecutor.

But his carelessness with campfires started two wildfires, one in 2002 and another last year, that scorched a combined 162,000 acres of wild land in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and cost more than $78 million to suppress, federal authorities said.

On Tuesday, prosecutors announced that Butcher, 48, had been indicted on eight charges, including two felony counts that could each bring up to five years in prison. He was arrested Monday and is being held without bail.

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Butcher is among 10 individuals and businesses facing federal charges of accidentally starting wildfires that have burned hundreds of thousands of acres of chaparral and forest land in Southern California since 2002.

All of the charges were filed in the last week, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph O. Johns, who is overseeing the prosecutions.

Among the government’s cases is that of a Santa Maria woman who allegedly lighted a “signal” fire after becoming separated from her boyfriend during a hike, workers whose equipment allegedly threw off sparks, and two men who allegedly ignited a blaze while target shooting.

Federal prosecutors said the charges are intended to raise awareness about how easily a wildfire can burn out of control in the region’s tinder-dry mountains. That is especially true as the area heads into late summer parched from a lack of rain.

Only 3.21 inches of rain fell in downtown Los Angeles last season, the lowest on record. The situation is the same all across Southern California.

“In past years we might not have used U.S. attorney resources to prosecute cases like these,” Johns said. “But we want to drive home the point that this is a high-alert time.”

Even as the indictments were being handed down, the Zaca wildfire north of Santa Barbara was burning for a second month in the Los Padres National Forest. The fire, which has charred 75,000 acres and cost $53 million to fight, was started by ranch workers making repairs.

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper, warily tracking the wildfire’s creep toward populated Ojai on Tuesday, said he welcomed the federal government’s aggressive approach.

“There needs to be more personal responsibility by individuals when they are out in these hazardous areas,” Roper said. “The cost of fighting fires is tremendous, and those tax dollars could be spent on recreational purposes instead of fire suppression.”

No lives were lost as a result of the fires in question, federal authorities said. But hundreds of thousands of acres of sensitive ecosystems were destroyed, as was -- in some cases -- property.

The Day fire was ignited deep in the Los Padres National Forest on Labor Day of 2006. Butcher told investigators that he was at the location where the fire started, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.

Butcher also sought emergency treatment for burns shortly after the fire started. He had been banned from the forest after allegedly starting a 70-acre fire in Piru Canyon in 2002, Mrozek said.

The transient sought attention for burns after that blaze as well, but was never charged with a crime, Mrozek said.

Johns said Butcher has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression and told investigators that he was uncomfortable around groups of people.

Butcher’s public defender, Jill Ginstling, was not available for comment. The defendant is scheduled to appear before a judge today at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, Mrozek said.

The other individuals and businesses facing charges include:

* Tina Renee Hammon, 35, of Santa Maria, who is accused of starting a fire in the Los Padres National Forest in April 2004. Hammon was trying to alert her boyfriend to her whereabouts after they become separated the day before, officials said. She also faces a charge of methamphetamine possession.

* Brothers Mark Brian Taylor, 41, of Lompoc and Paul Joseph Taylor, 40, of Tempe, Ariz. are accused of shooting at an explosive device in Los Padres forest in October 2003. Their activities allegedly ignited the 75-acre Happy fire five miles east of Santa Ynez.

* Jeremiah D. Hope was evacuated from his mountain home above San Bernardino amid the Old fire in October 2003. He and some friends drove to another ridge to watch the flames, authorities said. When Hope parked on a dirt road marked with a “No Motor Vehicles” sign, his vehicle ignited brush underneath, prosecutors said. The Playground fire that Hope is accused of starting merged with the Old fire, and the two blazes burned more than 90,000 acres of forest land, officials said.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com


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