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CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES AND ARSON

As several dangerous fires rage in California, fire authorities are investigating: Is the fire a result of natural causes (such as a lightning strike), or an external accident or negligence (for instance, a downed power line), or is the fire a result of an intentional act? If a fire is started by an intentional act, it is the crime of arson(Penal Code section 451). If the fire is started by an act of negligence or recklessness, it is a form of criminal arson (Penal Code section 452) that is not punished as severely as intentional arson, although it can become a much more serious crime if someone is injured or dies as a result of the fire. Whether the fire is intentionally set or is a result of negligence, the act of arson always carries with it the hazard that the fire will injure or kill someone.

You probably remember the Holy Fire in Cleveland National Forest last year. In that historic fire, over 23 thousand acres spanning Riverside and Orange Counties burned and 18 structures were destroyed. The Holy Fire is alleged to have been started by a man who is charged with intentionally starting fires in areas around cabins in Holy Jim Canyon, where he also lived. Reportedly, he had ongoing feuds with folks in neighboring cabins.  He may have only intended to disturb (or destroy) his neighbor’s cabins, not to burn 23 thousand acres of forest land, but because his act of starting the fires was (allegedly) intentional, he is charged with intentionally setting the Holy Fire. He in being held in Orange County jail on $1-million bail awaiting jury trial. If someone had died as a consequence of the fire, he would also face murderor manslaughtercharges.

And that is just what the California Attorney General has advised if Pacific Gas & Electric is found responsible for the Paradise Fire in 2018. Eighty-six lives were lost in the Paradise Fire. PG&E didn’t intentionally start those fires, but the allegations are that the fires were started by PG&E’s “reckless operation” of power equipment. You might wonder how a company could be charged with murder. It does seem unlikely, but it has happened before. Those old enough to remember, may recall the Ford Pinto explosion that killed three people in Indiana. It was claimed that Ford was negligent in its design of the vehicle’s gas tank, causing the explosion. Ford Motor Co. was indicted by the Indiana Grand Jury on three counts of reckless homicide. Ultimately, Ford was acquitted after a jury trial.

An individual, however, who is accused of intentional arson or even recklessly or negligently starting a fire that ends in the death of another person will almost always be charged with murder or manslaughter. The charge is not dependent on whether the person intended to kill someone, but thestate of mindis an important consideration and defense.  One of the most famous (and bizarre) cases was that of the Glendale fire captain and arson investigator who surreptitiously started fires in the Los Angeles area, one of which caused the death of four people. In 1998, he was convicted on four counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison, where he remains today, without the possibility of parole.

As for this year’s crop of fires, one man has already been arrested and charged with 13 counts of arson in connection with the recent fires near Milpitas, California.  Another man was recently arrested for allegedly starting multiple fires in forests in Butte County. As I write this, firefighters are battling numerous fires in Southern California. It is certain that not all these fires started from natural causes; in the coming months we will likely hear of arson investigations and more arrests.

Arson is a serious crime and even if the fire was not set intentionally, the charge usually requires a vigorous defense. Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has defended many arson cases in a variety of circumstances over his 25-plus years of practicing. He offers a complimentary consultation where he offers his assessment of your defenses and options. Contact himby calling his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.

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