Ex-college instructor arrested in connection with ‘arson-setting spree’ near Dixie fire
A former college instructor linked to a rash of arson fires has been arrested and charged with igniting a blaze on federal forest land, not far from the site of the massive Dixie fire in Northern California.
Gary Stephen Maynard, 47, has been charged with willfully starting the Ranch fire, which sparked Aug. 7 in Lassen National Forest and burned about an acre, according to documents filed in federal court this week.
Maynard is also suspected in at least six other fires that ignited in the Lassen and Shasta-Trinity National Forests in the last month.
“It appeared that Maynard was in the midst of an arson-setting spree,” the documents say.
The Dixie fire, now the second-largest blaze in state history, has burned more than 463,000 acres and destroyed more than 400 buildings.
Investigators first encountered Maynard at the scene of the Cascade fire, a July 20 blaze in a remote part of Shasta-Trinity, according to an affidavit from U.S. Forest Service special agent Tyler Bolem supporting the arrest warrant.
A witness said Maynard arrived in the area that morning and appeared mentally unstable, at one point threatening the witness with a knife. He recalled Maynard “walking away in the same direction that the Cascade Fire soon ignited” before returning about ten minutes later, the affidavit said.
Maynard was still at the scene when a fire investigator arrived because his car was stuck in a rut. The investigator said he was agitated and uncooperative when questioned.
A search of the site led to burned areas on the ground consisting of sticks, newspaper material and a wooden match.
“After visiting the scene and reviewing the facts in the case, I concurred that the ignition of this fire was not only suspicious, but consistent with arson,” Bolem said.
Greenville, a Gold Rush town dating to the 19th century, rebuilt after an 1881 fire. Now it has been destroyed by the Dixie fire, California’s largest this year.
When a second fire erupted early the next morning near the Everitt Memorial Highway on Mt. Shasta, tire tracks at the scene matched those of Maynard’s car.
In the weeks that followed, investigators used tire tracks, location data, EBT card activity and vehicle records to link Maynard to the sites of several other fires at the time of their ignition. Charges have not been filed in those cases.
He was arrested Saturday in a restricted area near the scene of the Conard fire, which was sparked the same day as the Ranch fire about three miles away. Tracking device data showed he had stopped at the location for about 30 minutes.
The arrest comes as firefighters struggle to contain the monstrous Dixie fire, which swelled to more than a half-million acres Wednesday. It is one of 11 major wildfires burning across the drought-ravaged state, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
Officials have long warned that even a single spark can grow into a massive fire amid the region’s bone-dry vegetation and record-breaking heat.
While most of the fires allegedly linked to Maynard remained small, at least one — the Bradley fire of July 11 — destroyed more than 300 acres of forestland.
The investigation into that fire is ongoing, documents said, and arson has not been ruled out. Tire impressions at the remote site appear to match Maynard’s car.
The dryness of the vegetation, primed by both long-term drought and shorter-term heat waves, is making it easy for fires to ignite and even easier for them to spread.
Maynard denied setting any fires, court documents say. He told investigators he was a university professor.
A spokeswoman for Sonoma State confirmed that he worked as a part-time lecturer last fall, teaching two seminars in criminology and criminal justice studies.
He had been contracted to fill in for a faculty member on leave and was not reappointed this spring, the spokeswoman said.
He also worked as an adjunct faculty member at Santa Clara University from September 2019 to December 2020, a university spokeswoman confirmed.
According to the affidavit, a colleague at Santa Clara University contacted the San Jose Police Department in October with concerns about Maynard’s mental state and wellbeing.
Officials say a perfect storm of conditions — the heat, the dry fuels, the drought, the wind, the slope — has driven the Dixie fire’s rapid spread.
Maynard is in federal custody in Sacramento, records show. A detention hearing is set for Wednesday.
In a detention memo, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Anderson asked that he not be released on the basis that he is a “significant danger to the public.”
“The area in which Maynard chose to set his fires is near the ongoing Dixie fire, a fire which is still not contained despite the deployment and efforts of over 5,000 personnel,” Anderson said.
He noted that many of the fires linked to Maynard had been set behind fire lines and in evacuation zones.
“In addition to the danger of enlarging the Dixie fire and threatening more lives and property,” he said, “this increased the danger to the first responders.”
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