The incendiary device allegedly used to set the deadly wildfire that killed five firefighters in Riverside County three weeks ago was similar to devices used to set two earlier fires linked to suspected arsonist Raymond Lee Oyler, a court affidavit alleges.
In all three fires, the arsonist set the blaze in the San Gorgonio Pass area by placing six or seven wooden matches atop a lighted cigarette, according to the court document.
DNA evidence recovered at the two earlier fires, which were set in June, is similar to the DNA profile of Oyler, the Beaumont man authorities have charged with five counts of murder for allegedly starting the 40,000-acre Esperanza fire, according to an affidavit filed by Matthew Wayne Gilbert, an investigator with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Authorities have released few details about the investigation into the blaze, which allegedly was set in the early morning of Oct. 26 at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains west of Palm Springs.
The Riverside County district attorney's office has charged Oyler with murder in the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters who were overtaken by flames as they tried to protect a home in the Twin Pines area.
Oyler has also been charged with lighting 10 other fires in the Beaumont-Banning area this summer and fall.
Gilbert stated in an Oct. 31 affidavit filed in Riverside County Superior Court that while he was investigating a fire that began June 9 on the Morongo Indian Reservation, he found an incendiary device composed of six wooden matches arranged on top of a cigarette.
In a second fire June 10, Gilbert said he found a similar device at the point of origin: a Marlboro cigarette and seven wooden matches.
At the site of the Esperanza fire in October, fire investigators found a Marlboro cigarette and six wooden matches held together with a rubber band, Gilbert said in the affidavit.
Investigators said they had tied DNA collected from the two cigarettes that were part of the devices used June 9 and 10 to the DNA collected when Oyler voluntarily gave a sample to sheriff's deputies when he was being questioned about the Esperanza fire.
In the affidavit, Gilbert wrote that officials were still running DNA tests on the match and cigarette device found at the Esperanza fire.
Oyler's lawyer, Mark McDonald, said he still had major questions about the DNA evidence and whether the samples from the June 9 and June 10 fires could be definitively matched to his client.
"A DNA profile -- it's a vague term," McDonald said. "A profile is only as good as its ability to exclude everyone else. DNA profiles can be ones that don't exclude my client. It could include other people. None of that has been specifically laid out."
"I have utmost faith that he's the wrong person," McDonald said.