Accidental wildfires draw aggressive prosecutions
Two laborers repairing a broken water pipe on a Santa Ynez ranch this summer sparked one of the largest wildfires in California history. They now face felony criminal charges that could land them in prison, and the ranch could be forced to pay at least part of the Zaca fire’s $118-million cost.
A transient whose trash burning allegedly started last year’s massive Day fire deep in the Los Padres National Forest, meanwhile, has been indicted on eight federal charges and will soon face a jury that could send him to prison for his part in the 162,702-acre blaze.
Compared with those, the forest fire started by a Santa Maria hiker trying to signal her boyfriend after the two became separated was small, just one acre. But Tina Hammon too faces a felony criminal indictment four years after flames were extinguished near Figueroa Mountain.
As investigators determine whether last week’s Malibu wildfire was deliberately set or sparked by accident, recent court filings show that authorities at local, state and federal levels in California are aggressively prosecuting those who start wildfires, regardless of intent.
Accidental ignitions cause most wildfires, according to state statistics. Over a five-year period, about two-thirds of state wildfires were started accidentally -- by humans, natural causes or unsafe use of equipment, according to a study by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Arsonists, by comparison, were responsible for 7%.
(The remaining causes were categorized as undetermined or other.) Sparks flying from power tools and equipment accounted for close to one-third of wildfires. Other accidental causes included trash-burning (10%), lightning strikes (5%), untended campfires and downed power lines (3% each).
Although no formal change in policy has been made, there is a new emphasis on investigating and bringing non-arson cases to trial, said Tom Hoffman, chief of the forestry department’s law enforcement division. The state typically has about 20 active cases, he said. But his division is actively investigating 60 that soon could enter the legal system.
“There definitely has been an increase in the number of these cases being litigated,” Hoffman said. “It’s heightened awareness of our responsibility as a state agency to act on behalf of taxpayers to recover firefighting costs.”
In August, federal prosecutors announced charges against 10 people and businesses accused of accidentally igniting wildfires in California dating to 2002. Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, said the agency wanted to remind people that they need to be careful living in Southern California’s tinder-dry conditions.
“We charged these cases around the same time to let people know that even a negligently started fire may bring a federal prosecution and potential prison time,” Mrozek said. “There’s been a flurry of wildfires, and it’s no time to be casual about how they get started.”
But some wonder whether prosecutors have become too zealous.
Los Angeles authorities briefly considered charging a 10-year-old boy accused of playing with matches and starting October’s Buckweed fire, which charred 38,000 acres and destroyed 21 homes near Santa Clarita. Prosecutors decided instead to refer the case to the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.
Attorneys representing the laborers in the Zaca fire case say the felony charges brought against their clients are overkill. The men’s lawyers said the workers took precautions while using grinding equipment to fix a watering trough, including keeping a large bucket of water nearby. But one spark flew so far that they couldn’t douse it in time, the attorneys said.
The men face up to nine years in state prison if convicted.
“My client was just doing his job. It was an accident,” said attorney Adrian Andrade, representing Santiago Iniguez Cervantes, 46, of Santa Maria. “A civil filing is one thing. But I’m not sure it should be a felony criminal case. That’s a bit onerous.”
Cervantes, who lives with his mother and takes care of a sister, has been unable to find work since the fire, Andrade said. The charges have devastated the blue-collar worker, who could potentially be required to repay at least part of the firefighting costs in a separate civil case.
“He wasn’t earning much more than minimum wage,” Andrade said. “How many lifetimes would it take for him to repay the costs?”
Law enforcement officials say they are obligated to hold those who start fires responsible. If there was a violation of law, or if someone was negligent, both civil and criminal charges can be considered, said Hoffman of the forestry department.
Businesses deemed responsible for wildfires have been prosecuted, and cases are often settled for the limits of the firms’ liability insurance. Two years ago, the state collected a $10.3-million settlement from PG&E; for a downed power line that sparked the Poe fire in Butte County, Hoffman said.
A host of laws for workers using welding tools and other heat-producing equipment spells out measures intended to minimize fire risks. Spark arresters are mandatory on some equipment, for instance, and state law specifies that welders must have a “fire watcher” on hand while using a torch.
Some jurisdictions require special permits to use flames in dry areas. In the Zaca fire case, prosecutors allege that the workers failed to obtain a hot-work permit, a violation of Santa Barbara County law.
Cervantes and Jose Jesus Cabrera, 38, of Santa Ynez are charged with four felony crimes each for allegedly recklessly starting the fire, which burned 375 square miles of wilderness in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Three firefighters were injured fighting the blaze, prosecutors said.
Rancho La Laguna, the cattle ranch where Cervantes and Cabrera were working, is also charged in the complaint. The ranch is organized as a limited liability company, a legal distinction that shields its owners from prison time, said Santa Barbara County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jerry Lulejian.
However, the ranch could face fines or have liens attached to the property if it is found liable for the wildfire, Lulejian said. Papers filed with the secretary of state’s office indicate that Charles Roven, a Hollywood producer whose credits include “Three Kings,” “Scooby-Doo” and “Batman Begins,” and his wife, Stephanie Haymes Roven, operate the ranch through the limited liability company.
Brad Brian, listed as attorney for the ranch, said his clients had no comment on the case.
The Day fire, which started on Labor Day 2006, took six weeks for firefighters to contain. Eleven structures burned.
Steven Butcher, 48, who is charged in the fire, allegedly told investigators that he was at the site where the fire began. A loner who is mentally ill, Butcher stumbled out of the Los Padres National Forest soon after the blaze started and sought medical treatment for burns, authorities said.
Suspected of starting a 70-acre fire in Piru Canyon in 2002, for which he was never charged, Butcher had already been banned from the forest before the Day fire. He was denied bail after his arrest in August and remains in a Los Angeles federal lockup awaiting trial.
Butcher faces eight charges of recklessly starting the wildfire by burning debris near his campsite. Two of the counts are felonies that could each bring up to five years in prison. His attorney, Deputy Federal Public Defender Jill Ginstling, did not return phone calls.
Tina Hammon, 35, was allegedly camping in the Los Padres National Forest north of Santa Barbara in April 2004 when she lost track of her boyfriend. Prosecutors say she used a cigarette lighter to ignite a signal fire, burning an acre of trees, brush and grass in the resulting blaze.
Prosecutors said Hammon was rescued by U.S. Forest Service personnel from the top of a manzanita bush. She is charged with lighting a fire without a permit, and possessing methamphetamine.