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.