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Release No. 07-101
August 7, 2007
FEDERAL AUTHORITIES CHARGE 10 FOR STARTING WILDFIRES THAT BURNED HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF ACRES
Criminal charges have been filed against 10 individuals and companies in relation to wildfires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest land across Southern California, United States Attorney George S. Cardona announced today.
“None of the cases allege arson. Rather, they charge negligent and illegal activity that has caused some of the most destructive fires in recent years,” said United States Attorney Cardona. “These cases illustrate the widespread damage that can result when people ignore simple rules that are in place to limit the potential for starting serious wildfires. The rules are there for a reason, and we hope that these cases will remind people that ignoring these rules can have serious consequences.”
Federal authorities yesterday arrested a transient on charges of starting the 2006 Day Fire, which burned more than 162,000 acres, most of which was in the Los Padres National Forest. Steven Emory Butcher, 48, was arrested after being indicted last week on eight charges, including two counts of starting fires that emitted embers that caused wildfires, felonies that carry a sentence of up to five years in prison for each count. The Day Fire burned for one month and fire-fighting costs were more than $78 million. Butcher is also accused of causing the 2002 Ellis Fire that burned approximately 70 acres in Piru Canyon, where the Day Fire also started. Butcher made his initial appearance Monday afternoon in federal court in Los Angeles, where a magistrate judge ordered him held without bond pending further hearings.
In October 2003, while the Old Fire was burning above San Bernardino, Jeremiah D. Hope had been evacuated from his mountain retreat, when he drove several friends into the San Bernardino National Forest to view the Old Fire. After driving down a dirt road clearly marked “No Motor Vehicles,” Hope drove his vehicle off the road and into an area of dry ferns and grass. When Hope stopped his vehicle, brush underneath was ignited, which started a second forest fire. The Playground Fire that Hope allegedly caused later merged with the Old Fire, and the two fires burned more than 90,000 acres of National Forest land. In a criminal information filed last week in federal court in Riverside, Hope, a 25-year-old Riverside resident, was charged with two misdemeanors – causing National Forest lands to burn and placing a vehicle in a dangerous place.
A Santa Paula company and an employee who resides in Ojai have been charged with starting the Piru Fire, which burned north of Fillmore in October 2003, charring more than 63,000 acres, about half of which were in the Los Padres National Forest. Mendez Concrete, Inc. and Michael Roberts, 57, who were working on a project for the United Water Conservation District, allegedly allowed an employee to use a gas-powered circular saw, which threw off sparks and started the fire. Mendez and Roberts should have had a fire extinguisher on hand, but none was available when the fire started. The defendants are charged with two misdemeanors in relation to the fire, which cost more than $7.5 million to suppress.
On April 27, 2004, Tina Renee Hammon allegedly started a fire near Figueroa Mountain in the Los Padres National Forest. The 35-year-old Santa Maria resident, who was indicted by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles last week, allegedly started a “signal fire” after being separated from her boyfriend during a hike the day before. Hammon, who was rescued by Forest Service personnel from the top of a manzanita, was charged with causing a fire in a national forest without a permit, as well as possession of methamphetamine after previously been convicted of two other drug offenses in state court.
The Cachuma Fire, which began on May 3, 2004 northeast of Santa Ynez was allegedly started by Craig Anderson, who was using a tractor to clear his land. Anderson, 58, whose residence is adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest, is accused of starting a fire that consumed approximately 1,100 acres by using a tractor that did not have a spark arrester and was equipped with metal tire chains that may have thrown sparks into brush. It cost more than $4 million to control the Cachuma Fire and to restore resources that were damaged.
In a criminal information filed yesterday, The Best Demolition and Recycling Co., Inc was charged with causing the 290-acre Middle Fire in Little Tujunga Canyon in 2003. The Pacoima company is accused of causing the fire in the Angeles National Forest by allowing an employee to operate a tractor without a proper spark arrester.
Mark Brian Taylor, 41, of Lompoc, and Paul Joseph Taylor, 40, of Tempe, Arizona, were charged yesterday with negligently placing a device that might cause a fire. They are accused of going to a shooting area in the Los Padres National Forest on October 23, 2003 and shooting at a Tannerite Binary Explosive – on the same day the Forest Service issued a press release urging the public to be extremely cautious because of extreme fire danger. The brothers’ activities led to the Happy Fire, a 75-acre blaze fire approximately five miles east of Santa Ynez.
The final defendant, Lucas T. Bennett, 24, of Los Angeles (90028), was issued a citation for having an illegal campfire in the Angeles National Forest on December 2, 2006. When the campfire got out of control, it started a one-quarter-acre brush fire near to the Islip Saddle Trail. Bennett has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor violation of causing timber to burn and is scheduled to go to trial on September 6.
These cases were investigated by special agents with the United States Forest Service.
Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Bernie Weingardt of the U.S. Forest Service said: “Fire investigations are one of our top priorities, especially since these fires damage public lands, destroy people's homes and cost millions of dollars to fight. In these critically important matters, we will pursue those whose illegal activities are the cause of such huge losses.”
Release No. 07-101
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