As darkness fell June 10 on the middle-class Duarte neighborhood, a raging brush fire lit up the hills above. Helicopters circled overhead, dumping fire retardant on the roaring flames. Some homeowners piled valuables in their cars, while others sprayed water on their roofs. And peeking out the door of her family's home, one young girl worried about her 16-year-old brother.
All she knew was that he and three friends had been taken into custody by deputies and were at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's station in Temple City.
There, the four boys were nervously answering an arson investigator's questions about how they inadvertently touched off the 120-acre fire, which 250 firefighters were struggling to halt only yards from several homes.
For those teen-agers and their families--and for the hundreds of children and adults who accidentally or intentionally set off sometimes deadly and dangerous blazes each summer--that Friday afternoon mistake may prove very costly.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department and the U.S. Forest Service intend to hold the youths' parents liable for the more than $50,000 it cost to fight the fire, according to county Battalion Chief Gordon Pearson. It took 14 engine companies, 12 hand crews, three helicopters, two water tenders and one bulldozer about 10 hours to contain the blaze.
Each boy could be sentenced to up to four years in a youth correctional facility if convicted of causing an unlawful brush fire, though their terms more likely would be about one year, said Deputy Ronald Ablott, a member of the county Sheriff Department's arson and explosives division.
About 90% of all fires are caused by humans. Last year, on state land alone, 790 blazes were attributed to children playing with fire. According to Sheriff's Department statistics, about 50% of the 1,054 fires linked to arson in Los Angeles County last year, causing almost $10 million in damage, were set by juveniles.
With California besieged with wildfires each summer--more than 8,000 blazes burned nearly 800,000 acres last year and cost the state $52 million to extinguish--authorities say people should expect to pay for the damage they cause and face stiff penalties.
In recent years, the county Fire Department has stepped up attempts to recover firefighting costs whenever investigators can prove someone is directly responsible for a blaze, Pearson said. The Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry are mandated by law to seek restitution whenever possible.
Payment can be required by a judge as part of a criminal sentence or can be secured through a civil lawsuit. When blame for a fire can be affixed to an individual, restitution demands are at least partially successful about 75% of the time, according to Keith Metcalfe, the California Department of Forestry fire prevention officer responsible for Southern California.
"We generally always go after suppression costs," he said. People whose property has been damaged can also sue to recover their losses. "It can be both a cost-recovery and an educational tool," Metcalfe said.
Many Payments Made
Metcalfe's department has collected payments of anywhere from $250 to $250,000. From January through May of this year, the department has received restitution payments of $672,000.
The department can come up short when people have no income, but even those who cannot afford the full amount are not let off. Metcalfe said a one Riverside man makes court-ordered monthly payments of $200 on a $50,000 judgment for a fire he started in 1972.
"Fire suppression is not cheap," said Maryn Pitt, assistant director of the Forestry Department, which is charged with protecting most private land in the state. "There's not really any reason why the taxpayers should have to subsidize some people's foolish mistake."
This summer is ripe for scorching mistakes. Although state and local fire officials admit they often warn the public about dry, dangerous conditions, they stress that Southern California's brush is drier than it has ever been.
Hiked Into Hills
"Hillsides are like a tinderbox ready to explode," said county Assistant Fire Chief Harold McCann, who directed firefighters' battle against the Duarte blaze. "That showed up there in the mountains that night."
Earlier that afternoon the four boys, whose names have not been released because they are under 18, followed a dirt path into the hills. They described what happened next to Ablott.
For fun, they began lighting patches of brush with a cigarette lighter and stamping out the fires. One of the boys said the hills were too dry to experiment with, but was ignored.
The fourth time they set some brush afire, they were not able to snuff out the flames. The fire quickly spread up the hillside, turning into a full-fledged inferno, and the teen-agers ran.
Neighbors, however, saw the boys enter and leave the hills and pointed them out to police. Deputies collared them at a nearby park.