SAN FRANCISCO — Arsonists are torching America's national forests for profit, making money on everything from fire equipment leases to burned timber.
And legislation passed by Congress in July could add even more fuel to the billion-dollar fire sale, critics say.
Americans don't realize the extent of arson in forest fires, said Michael Francis, director of national forest programs for the Wilderness Society in Washington.
"They think most fires are accidental, or caused by lightning. They'd be shocked," he said.
In the Southeast, 90% of the forest fires on federal land are deliberately set, said Allen Polk of the U.S. Forest Service. The figure is lower in the West, where lightning is a major factor--but that doesn't tell the whole story.
In California, only 12.8% of fires on state-controlled land are arson--but they account for 71.5% of the dollar damage, said Karen Terrill of the state forestry department.
"They are the most destructive," she said. "Typically, they set their fires where they do the most harm."
Some arsonists light fires for the thrill, and farmers touch off many others with illegal burns to clear land, especially in the Southeast.
But some federal law enforcement officials are convinced that there are many more arson-for-profit fires than reported.
"It's a nightmare for law enforcement," said U.S. Atty. Charles Stevens of California's Eastern District. "And regulatory agencies might be inclined to err on the side of a low number because people might infer they are not doing the job."
Forest fires are a big industry. The nation spent $757 million fighting fires on federal land last year, and hard-hit California spent $60 million more on state lands.
Large blazes generate contracts for everything from water tankers and bulldozers to fire crews, food and toilet paper--and generate them fast.
Stevens said money was the dominant factor behind a series of fires in his district's extensive federal forest lands. "Based on our observations, the overwhelming majority of the fires there were arson for profit, 80% to 90%," he said.
The most glaring example, Stevens said, was a string of blazes in 1992-93 in the Trinity and Shasta county areas of Northern California.
Ernest Earl Ellison, 33, pleaded guilty to helping set the fires and was sentenced to 15 1/2 months in prison. Ellison owned a water tender truck that he leased to the Forest Service to fight the fires he set.
Stevens said he believes there are many other Ellisons out there.
Another source of arson fires are the people who fight them, said Patrick Lyng, who trains criminal investigators for the Forest Service.
"Unfortunately, one of the first places we look at are firemen--that's been a problem in the past," he said. "Volunteer firefighters aren't paid until they have a fire."
On Aug. 29 in the Mt. Shasta area of Northern California, the 60-year-old mother of a firefighter was arraigned on 11 counts of arson. Prosecutors charged that she was motivated by a desire to create work for her son.
The financial motives, already strong, may be getting stronger.
A "salvage logging" provision slipped into the $16-billion budget-cutting bill approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton in July makes it easier for timber companies to cut otherwise exempt trees after a fire.
In May, U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin in Portland, Ore., underscored the danger of the policy in ruling for the Sierra Club's suit to prevent logging after a 1991 arson fire in the Warner Creek area near Eugene.
The Warner Creek blaze followed a controversy over its designation as a spotted owl nesting area. Loggers opposed the designation, which--until the fire--had prevented them from cutting trees in the area.
Environmentalists sued to stop logging after the fire, arguing that it rewarded the likely arsonists. The magistrate agreed.
"The effect of selling arson fire-damaged timber could be future acts of arson," the magistrate wrote in May.
"Allowing salvage logging after arson in areas where the removal of timber has been limited may provide an economic incentive."
Increasingly, environmentalists and many within the Forest Service itself question whether most fires should be fought at all. While people and their dwellings clearly must be protected, fires are a natural part of forest ecology.
Whether firefighting policies are changed, arson will be a likely outgrowth of looser laws and dwindling resources, said Charlie Ogle, the Sierra Club's forest expert in Oregon.
"In the past, there were lots of logging opportunities--you didn't have to go out and create them," Ogle said. "But that's changed now. You have areas that are set aside for reserves--except after fires."