SAN DIEGO -- A convicted arsonist is back in prison after he was discovered working as a volunteer firefighter during last month's Witch fire, which burned 198,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,100 homes in northern San Diego County.
Steven Robles, 30, who was released from prison this year after serving nine years for starting a series of fires that destroyed 13 homes in 1997, spent 30 hours working with the Ranchita Volunteer Fire Department before an investigator from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recognized him, officials said.
Forestry department Battalion Chief Jim Garrett said Robles is not a suspect in any of the recent fires.
Although there is nothing in the terms of Robles' parole to keep him from working as a volunteer firefighter, he has to notify his parole officer when he takes a job. He has been returned to prison for violating that rule, officials said.
Gary Loyd, a handyman who serves as fire chief for the eight-member Ranchita department, said firefighters saw nothing wrong or suspicious in Robles' actions while he was helping fight the fire in the Valley Center area.
"We sent him out to the fire, and he was working with the other guys," Loyd said. Then the forestry department "noticed him, and I called the sheriff and he did his job."
Robles, who lives in Escondido, had volunteered two weeks before the firestorms erupted in Southern California, according to Loyd. Robles went through two days of training and was called when the Santa Ana winds whipped the Witch fire into an inferno.
"The crews didn't have any problem with him," Loyd said. "I believe in people getting a second chance in life. But he should have been more honest with me, and he should have followed the [parole] rules."
Robles is one of the region's most notorious arsonists. He was convicted of setting seven fires in the Escondido area, where he worked as a delivery service driver. The jury deadlocked on a more serious arson charge that could have led to life in prison.
His arrest had come after a lengthy investigation, including the use of hidden cameras in burn areas. One of the cameras caught Robles driving his truck, with the license plate FIRE. Robles later confessed that he learned his arson technique -- a burning cigarette inside a book of matches -- from the television show "L.A. Firefighters."
During his trial, witnesses testified that Robles had had a long interest in becoming a firefighter, had enrolled in a Police Explorer and Junior Firefighter course in high school, and had worked briefly as a volunteer for the San Pasqual Volunteer Fire Department.
A probation department report said he set fires so he could help fight them. During the 1997 fires, Robles was initially considered a hero for being one of the first volunteers to fight a blaze -- which later evidence showed he had set. At his sentencing, he wept and begged forgiveness from people whose homes had burned. A psychiatrist testified that Robles was not a pyromaniac, but rather someone who wanted the acclaim and status of being a firefighter. He was sentenced to 18 years.
Loyd said that, as a volunteer agency, the Ranchita department does not have authority to perform law enforcement-style background checks on volunteer applicants. The department will change its application to inquire about criminal convictions, he said. "I took him at face value, that he wanted to help the community," Loyd said. "I guess I can't do that anymore."