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Accidental wildfires draw aggressive prosecutions

Authorities increasingly are pursuing criminal charges against those deemed responsible. Prison time could result.

December 02, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Two laborers repairing a broken water pipe on a Santa Ynez ranch this summer sparked one of the largest wildfires in California history. They now face felony criminal charges that could land them in prison, and the ranch could be forced to pay at least part of the Zaca fire's $118-million cost.

A transient whose trash burning allegedly started last year's massive Day fire deep in the Los Padres National Forest, meanwhile, has been indicted on eight federal charges and will soon face a jury that could send him to prison for his part in the 162,702-acre blaze.

Compared with those, the forest fire started by a Santa Maria hiker trying to signal her boyfriend after the two became separated was small, just one acre. But Tina Hammon too faces a felony criminal indictment four years after flames were extinguished near Figueroa Mountain.

As investigators determine whether last week's Malibu wildfire was deliberately set or sparked by accident, recent court filings show that authorities at local, state and federal levels in California are aggressively prosecuting those who start wildfires, regardless of intent.

Accidental ignitions cause most wildfires, according to state statistics. Over a five-year period, about two-thirds of state wildfires were started accidentally -- by humans, natural causes or unsafe use of equipment, according to a study by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Arsonists, by comparison, were responsible for 7%.

(The remaining causes were categorized as undetermined or other.) Sparks flying from power tools and equipment accounted for close to one-third of wildfires. Other accidental causes included trash-burning (10%), lightning strikes (5%), untended campfires and downed power lines (3% each).

Although no formal change in policy has been made, there is a new emphasis on investigating and bringing non-arson cases to trial, said Tom Hoffman, chief of the forestry department's law enforcement division. The state typically has about 20 active cases, he said. But his division is actively investigating 60 that soon could enter the legal system.

"There definitely has been an increase in the number of these cases being litigated," Hoffman said. "It's heightened awareness of our responsibility as a state agency to act on behalf of taxpayers to recover firefighting costs."

In August, federal prosecutors announced charges against 10 people and businesses accused of accidentally igniting wildfires in California dating to 2002. Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said the agency wanted to remind people that they need to be careful living in Southern California's tinder-dry conditions.

"We charged these cases around the same time to let people know that even a negligently started fire may bring a federal prosecution and potential prison time," Mrozek said. "There's been a flurry of wildfires, and it's no time to be casual about how they get started."

But some wonder whether prosecutors have become too zealous.

Los Angeles authorities briefly considered charging a 10-year-old boy accused of playing with matches and starting October's Buckweed fire, which charred 38,000 acres and destroyed 21 homes near Santa Clarita. Prosecutors decided instead to refer the case to the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.

Attorneys representing the laborers in the Zaca fire case say the felony charges brought against their clients are overkill. The men's lawyers said the workers took precautions while using grinding equipment to fix a watering trough, including keeping a large bucket of water nearby. But one spark flew so far that they couldn't douse it in time, the attorneys said.

The men face up to nine years in state prison if convicted.

"My client was just doing his job. It was an accident," said attorney Adrian Andrade, representing Santiago Iniguez Cervantes, 46, of Santa Maria. "A civil filing is one thing. But I'm not sure it should be a felony criminal case. That's a bit onerous."

Cervantes, who lives with his mother and takes care of a sister, has been unable to find work since the fire, Andrade said. The charges have devastated the blue-collar worker, who could potentially be required to repay at least part of the firefighting costs in a separate civil case.

"He wasn't earning much more than minimum wage," Andrade said. "How many lifetimes would it take for him to repay the costs?"

Law enforcement officials say they are obligated to hold those who start fires responsible. If there was a violation of law, or if someone was negligent, both civil and criminal charges can be considered, said Hoffman of the forestry department.

Businesses deemed responsible for wildfires have been prosecuted, and cases are often settled for the limits of the firms' liability insurance. Two years ago, the state collected a $10.3-million settlement from PG&E for a downed power line that sparked the Poe fire in Butte County, Hoffman said.

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