Past fires provide prosecution insight

Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat /

Federal and local law enforcement officials remain tight-lipped about their investigation into the Rim Fire, nearly two months after announcing it was started by a hunter's unlawful campfire.

Lauren Horwood, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office Eastern District of California, confirmed the office has been working "in coordination" with the U.S. Forest Service in its investigation.

The Tuolumne County District Attorney's Office is also looking into the fire, but has declined to comment.

But Horwood said the hunter who caused the Rim Fire would be prosecuted through the U.S. Attorney's Fresno office, if he is eventually charged.

While she declined to provide specifics on the investigation, she acknowledged similar cases of accidentally-set wildfires, later prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney, could be instructive.

Two similar fires would be the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County - the largest in state history - and the 11th largest fire, the 2006 Day Fire in Ventura County.

The Rim Fire falls in between - the state's third largest fire, at about 260,000 acres - and all three were the result of fires that escaped.

In the Cedar Fire, a lost hunter named Sergio Martinez lit a signal fire that escaped into the Cleveland National Forest. The fire killed 14 people, destroyed over 2,000 homes and burned over 280,000 acres.

He served just six months in a minimum-security jail that allowed him to continue going to work and was ordered to pay $9,000.

Steven Emory Butcher, a transient who accidentally started Ventura County's 2006 Day Fire and another smaller fire in 2002 -in both cases with careless campfires - got four years in prison.

Butcher was ordered to pay $101 million in fire suppression costs at a rate of $25 a month from his SSI check. That grew to $50 a month when he got out of prison.

The cost of fighting the Rim Fire has exceeded $125 million. At $50 a month, repayment would take 208,000 years.

It is unclear why exactly the sentences varied so greatly, and U.S. Attorneys will generally not comment on their cases, Horwood said.

"A lot is up to the judge, it depends on what the charges are and sometimes you might know the judge is against it and you push for what you know you can get," she said.

Martinez pleaded guilty to the charges, which can reduce the legal penalty. The judge commented at the sentencing that Martinez didn't set the fire maliciously andthat penalties set would not bring loved ones or property back.

Joseph Johns, chief of Environmental Crimes Section for the Central District of U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, prosecuted the Butcher case and said there was "a qualitative difference" in the actions of Butcher and Martinez.

Butcher had been directly warned by a park ranger and was aware of the fact that no fire was allowed in the forest at that time. Yet, he lit one anyway to burn his trash, and it was at least his second time doing so, Johns said.

By comparison, Martinez was lost and felt he needed to light a fire to save his life.

Butcher was a case in which prosecutors took a "very aggressive stance," Johns said. They recommended Butcher serve closer to 10 years in prison.

Prosecutors are influenced by local conditions and history, he said. In the central region he represents, devastating wildfires are seen most years.

Horwood, representing the eastern district, said the region sees a decent amount of wildfire cases, but they are nearly always civil, not criminal, and are against large companies, not individuals.

Monetary penalties can be set to cover numerous losses, Johns said.

"First the costs for the mitigation effort; second, restitution for direct damages; and, finally, a criminal penalty fine."

A prosecutor could seek restitution for the forest loss a few ways, Johns said. They could get a timber-harvest official to estimate the value of the wood in cords, he said, which has been done for illegal wood-harvesting cases.

But, he said, "the realistic cost, which is much more accurate, is the recovery value. Determine the real-world cost to replace and grow out those trees - literally from germinating, planting, putting in water infrastructure and the cost of growing them until they're 200 years old. Those costs end up being tremendous."

"Those costs don't even touch on all of the animals, the insects, the wildlife lost in a devastating wildfire," Johns said, adding "What is the value of 200,000 whitetail deer to society or to the forest ecosystem?"

But other factors in prosecuting the Butcher case were the closure of Interstate 5 over Labor Day weekend, and that 10,000 residents were forced to live through dangerously unhealthy smoke conditions, Johns said.

He said the U.S. Attorneys argued that these were appropriate factors for the judge to consider during sentencing.

The Rim Fire forced the closure of Highway 120 - one of the main routes into Yosemite National Park - over Labor Day weekend, put surrounding counties into harmful smoke levels and directly burned much private property, including some commercial buildings.

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The Union Democrat
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