WASHINGTON — As a federal prosecutor, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) struggled to tie an accused arsonist to a string of fires in the San Bernardino National Forest.
But then authorities stumbled across an old file showing that the man had set fires using the same modus operandi years earlier. Once the accused arsonist was confronted with the evidence, he pleaded guilty.
Today, Schiff uses the story to make the case for legislation that would set up a national system for tracking convicted arsonists, a program similar to the sex offenders registry.
Had such a system been in place when Schiff worked on the arson case -- providing the names, addresses, fingerprints and photographs of arsonists and their methods for starting fires -- "we may have been able to stop him before he committed several later fires," the congressman said.
With another fire season looming, Schiff is making a new push to pass the Managing Arson Through Criminal History (MATCH) Act.
The bill is one of a spate of measures aimed at reducing the threat of wildfires.
The economic stimulus bill included $515 million to reduce wildfire risks, much of it going to provide jobs clearing brush and thinning forests. The House recently approved -- and the Senate is soon expected to take up -- the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act to create a special fund to cover the escalating cost of fighting wildfires. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is renewing her effort to pass bills that would increase federal assistance to disaster victims and offer federal grants to nudge fire-prone communities to take preventive measures.
The flurry of legislation comes as federal firefighting costs have grown and concerns about wildfires have increased because of drought and global warming. Wildfires burned 5.3 million acres last year, including 1.4 million acres in California.
The arson legislation has gained new interest after a recent Riverside County jury's recommendation of the death sentence for Raymond Lee Oyler for setting the 2006 Esperanza fire that killed five firefighters, destroyed 34 homes and burned more than 40,000 acres. Oyler was a serial arsonist who set up to 25 fires.
Much of the area burned in the Esperanza fire is represented by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs), chief sponsor of the arson registry bill.
The legislation would require convicted arsonists -- many of whom are repeat offenders -- to report to authorities where they live, work and attend school. An arsonist would be required to register five years for one offense, 10 years for two, and for life for three or more offenses. The arsonists registry would be available only to investigators, not the public.
California, under 1984 legislation, established an arsonist registry that has about 3,500 names. But Burbank Fire Chief Tracy Pansini called the state registry "toothless."
Only arsonists convicted in California courts must register with the state, not arsonists from other states who move into the state.
A national registry, fire officials said, would allow arson investigators to broaden their searches to suspects throughout the country.
Schiff contends that the measure would also deter arsonists: "If arsonists know that they are part of a registry that will be examined in the wake of any arson fires it will hopefully discourage them from setting additional fires."
The measure easily cleared the House in the last Congress, but never came to a vote in the Senate. Its supporters hope the approaching wildfire season -- and sentencing of the Esperanza fire arsonist -- will give it new momentum.
"We're coming into wildfire season," Pansini said. "You know how many homes these people burn down?"