Teen sentenced for starting massive San Marcos fire

Teen sentenced for starting massive San Marcos fire
An airplane makes a fire retardant drop on a burning hill near Cal State San Marcos last May. A 14-year-old girl convicted of setting the 2014 fire was sentenced Wednesday to 400 hours of community service. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A 14-year-old girl convicted of setting the 2014 fire that burned nearly 2,000 acres and destroyed or damaged 40 homes and other structures in northern San Diego County was sentenced Wednesday to 400 hours of community service but no time in custody.

Superior Court Judge Aaron Katz, sitting in Juvenile Court, spared the girl from incarceration at Juvenile Hall. Katz, reviewing the girl's psychiatric evaluation, said she had gone through a traumatic early childhood. He was not specific.


Along with community service, the teenager must seek therapy and write letters of apology to victims. She is prohibited from riding her bicycle in the neighborhoods where homes burned.

Katz set a hearing for July to determine whether the girl's parents must pay restitution to the victims. Damage from the fires was estimated at more than $10 million.

Several victims talked to reporters after the sentencing to explain how the fire had disrupted, even destroyed, their lives.

Chuck Higby, whose garage was burned, called the sentence "a slap on the wrist," mentioning the bicycle-riding prohibition.

"She is not suffering for this -- no consequences," Higby said.

On Thursday, the girl's parents issued a statement that, in part, read, "We know we can never make up for all the victims' losses, pain and suffering. We are heartbroken that (their daughter) has hit an obstacle in her young life, which has not only devastated her and us, but also all of the victims and their families."

The fire raged from May 14 to May 22 and, at its height, was battled by more than 500 firefighters. It destroyed structures in San Marcos, Escondido and the Harmony Grove Spiritualist Assn. retreat.

The girl did not testify during the trial. Nor did she address the victims of the fire.

Judge Howard Shore had found the girl guilty of three felonies but concluded that she did not intend to start a fire that destroyed property or hurt people. Still, she used a lighter on a "red-flag" day of hot, dry winds.

"She is going to be rehabilitated," Deputy Dist. Atty. Shawnalyse Ochoa said. "She is going to learn from her errors."

Testimony by her mother and sister indicated that the girl admitted using the lighter to start two backyard fires. She also confessed during interrogation by a sheriff's deputy while her mother was present, according to testimony.

Prosecutors argued that one of the fires sent an ember nearly half a mile and it ignited the Cocos fire.

The Cocos fire -- named for a street near its origin -- was one of 20 that raged through northern San Diego County in May, driven by Santa Ana winds. Authorities have not determined that any of the other fires were arson.

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