Prosecutors grappled on Wednesday with what charges, if any, to file against the 10-year-old boy who admitted he set a fire last week that charred more than 38,000 acres and destroyed 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County.
On the ranch northeast of Santa Clarita where the boy’s parents helped care for horses, people who knew him said he had no history of problems and was distraught about the destruction.
“He’s a child, and I certainly believe that he had no malice and I absolutely believe it was accidental,” said Denise Tomey, executive director of Carousel Ranch, which offers equestrian therapy for physically and mentally disabled children.
The boy had no connection to the program but had lived in a trailer on the property in the Agua Dulce area for about a year with his parents, one of whom is a ranch caretaker.
Tomey called the boy’s family “peaceful.”
Though fire officials said it was unlikely that the boy would face criminal charges, they said that his parents could possibly be held civilly liable for the damage. But the blaze caused millions of dollars in losses, and it is unclear whether his family could afford to pay even a fraction of that.
The boy, who has not been named by authorities, told investigators that he was playing with matches when he set fire to dry brush Oct. 21, a day when ferocious Santa Ana winds fueled fires throughout the region.
At the property, which is up a winding dirt road from a narrow, two-lane street, the fire’s destructive path is clear. Just across the unfenced property line begins charred earth that stretches west over blackened hills as far as the eye can see.
“Obviously I feel terrible for the people who are affected by the fire, and I know the child felt terrible about it,” Tomey said.
She said she asked his parents to remove him from the ranch Monday after investigators interviewed him. Tomey said he has been staying with relatives elsewhere in California.
News that a child had set the blaze stunned fire victims. Investigators initially reported that the cause was downed power lines.
“I’m sure he has no idea the amount of damage he has caused,” said Michelle Garcia, whose one-story Santa Clarita home was partly destroyed in the fire. “I feel so bad for the child and his parents. He’s going to have to live with this for the rest of his life.”
Prosecutors on Wednesday began reviewing the case, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, and it remains unclear when they will decide what to do with the boy.
State fire officials said they believed that the boy’s age made it unlikely he would face criminal charges for the Buckweed fire, a blaze that at its height drove more than 15,000 people from their homes.
When someone under 12 sets a fire, his or her actions are considered “playing with fire” and not arson, said Dave Hillman, chief of investigations for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Although there are exceptions to this distinction, Hillman said, they are rare.
“You have to draw the line somewhere,” he said.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles County prosecutors refused to file charges against two teenagers who touched off a blaze that charred 160 acres in the Hollywood Hills. The boys, who were visiting Los Angeles from Linden, Ill., were playing with a lighter in the back of the Oakwood apartments when they accidentally set twigs on fire. The flames spread up the hillside through deep vegetation. The boys, who turned themselves in to authorities, were not prosecuted.
But in Orange County, a 12-year-old girl was arrested Oct. 22 for allegedly setting a seven-acre fire in Anaheim. She remains in the custody of the Orange County Probation Department.
“The fire came dangerously close to some homes in that area,” said Maria Sabol, an Anaheim Fired Department spokeswoman.
California officials say arson annually ranks in the top three to four known causes of the state’s wildfires. The number fluctuates based on weather conditions, including heavy winds and lightning.
Neither California nor Los Angeles County fire officials keep statistics that break down the number of juveniles who either intentionally or accidentally started fires. But officials in the city of Los Angeles’ Fire Department reported that each year dozens of juveniles are arrested for starting fires and that nearly as many receive counseling.
In 2005, of 1,467 arson arrests in California, 52% were of juveniles, according to the California Department of Justice.
Nationwide, an FBI report found that in 2003, 50.8% of those arrested on suspicion of arson were juveniles; a third of total arson arrests were of children under 15 and 3% were of those under 10.
Experts cautioned that the number of fires set by children may be far higher, because most are not classified as arson.
According to the National Fire and Protection Assn., in 2002, children playing with fire started about 13,900 structure fires, causing 210 deaths.
Juvenile fire-starters have been responsible for some massive and deadly wildfires. A 16-year old boy set the 1956 Inaja fire in rural San Diego County that killed 11 firefighters and resulted in sweeping changes in how wildfires were fought. He told investigators: “I just got a mad, crazy idea to do it. I threw a match in the grass to see if it would burn.”
In the Santa Clarita Valley area hit by the Buckweed fire, residents affected by the blaze said they could not believe such destruction was caused by a 10-year-old.
Garcia said she would be “horrified” if her child had started such a fire. But for a boy so young, she said, severe legal punishment made no sense. If he were a few years older, Garcia said, he should be required to meet and talk to all the families who lost their homes.
As word spread on one Canyon Country street where 10 homes were destroyed or damaged, some residents reacted angrily to news that the fire had not been accidental.
Bryan Truax, 25, spent hours using a garden hose to extinguish spot fires after he and other neighbors were trapped on Camp Plenty Road by bottle-necked traffic.
When a visiting friend told him that the fire-starter was only 10, Truax softened.
“I couldn’t say, ‘Lock him up for the rest of his life.’ It was a mistake,” he said. “I hope he learned his lesson. Parents need to watch over their children.”
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.