The California wildfires have been a horrific reminder that life is short, and has compounded the concerns that climate change present to a modern society. Hundreds remain missing in what has been the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history – but what, or who caused them is still under investigation. Authorities in California have been forced to change how they deal with people who cause fires – whether accidentally, or on purpose.
In 2004, the Bear fire burned 11,000 acres in California. A man named William Rupp was arrested and convicted of arson, spending two years in state prison. It is somewhat unusual for someone to be convicted of arson for setting a wildfire – often because the initial spark is unintentional. In Mr. Rupp’s case, he was accused of ignoring the serious fire hazard when he rode his riding lawn mower and cut his grass on a dry day where temperatures reached 106 degrees. The mower blade hit a rock and sparked a fire. He was ordered to pay $2.9 million to the victims, although he has no way to pay. In another case, a civil lawsuit was filed against a Saudi businessman after a poorly maintained electrical junction on his property caused the 2015 Mountain fire, which burned over 27,500 acres. Prosecutors are able to secure convictions under these cases if they can show that someone willfully and maliciously or recklessly set fire to something.
It is also incredibly difficult to find the person ultimately responsible for starting to blaze. Few arsonists have been convicted of wildfire arson. Raymond Lee Oyler was the first, currently sitting on death row in California. Over five months, he played a well-orchestrated game of cat and mouse with various California fire departments, setting systematic fires and watching the devastation play out through his binoculars.
In California, a conviction for arson under California Penal Code 451(c) is a felony which carries state imprisonment for between two to six years. However, if someone is charged and convicted of arson that causes great bodily injury, that is a felony punishable by a prison term for five to nine years. Arson which causes an inhabited property to burn is punishable by state prison for three to eight years. California also has a felony murder rule, which means that if an individual carries out felony arson, but then also kills someone in the process, they could face murder charges and spend life in prison if convicted.
Some of the most common defenses to arson charges are usually that the fire was an accident, or that the defendant is a victim of mistaken identification. Sometimes, defense attorneys will try to demonstrate that the fire was not the result of arson, or poke holes in the state’s case to show that the evidence against the defendant is insufficient to carry a conviction. Ultimately, it is up to the prosecutor to determine whether or not an arson charge will get filed. In the past, these charges and convictions for wildfire crimes were rare. In light of the consistent and terrible fires of 2018, it seems that the attitude might change.