Is California Wildfire Arson Getting Worse?


A college professor. A Caltech graduate. A woman in a bikini. And just this month a father and a son.

A bewildering collection of Californians has been accused of contributing to one of the worst wildfire seasons in state history — a season that killed three people, leveled thousands of homes and burned more than 2.5 million acres.

While fires ignited by downed power lines and lightning have wreaked widespread destruction in recent years, this latest wildfire season has been unusual for the number of large fires that have been linked to arson. Arrests for wildfire arson have soared in recent years: In 2021, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported 140 arrests by its law enforcement branch — 20 more than the year before and double the number in 2019.

For some, the apparent increase in arson attacks was a disturbing new development in California’s ever-worsening wildfire regime, and has even fueled a slew of conspiracy theories. But experts say the attention-grabbing headlines and spike in arrests belie an enduring truth: Arson accounts for only a fraction of California’s annual fire outbreaks.

What has changed, they say, is that bone-dry drought conditions and overgrown forests blew even the smallest spark into an inferno.

“Once they start the fire on the ground, they have no control over how it will continue to grow,” said Gianni Muschetto, Cal Fire’s chief of law enforcement.

In California, lawmakers distinguish between two types of arson: intentional, malicious arson and reckless arson, such as when a person sets off fireworks in dry brush, Muschetto said. Identifying the source of a wildfire is one of the more technical tasks in law enforcement, and in 2019 — the last year he had data for — the causes of most California wildfires were undetermined. Electrical devices accounted for about 12% and lightning for 6%.

But arson was also a factor that started about 9% of the state’s fires in 2019 and about 8% to 10% of the state’s wildfires in any given year. When Cal Fire responded to more than 8,600 fires in 2021, that could mean as many as 800 blazes.

One of the suspected arsonists making national headlines this year was Gary Maynard, a former college professor who has been linked to an “arson operation” near the Dixie Fire, the second largest wildfire in recorded history in California.

Maynard was accused of willfully starting four fires in the Shasta-Trinity and Lassen National Forests in July and August. Some of the flames were placed behind fire lines and in evacuation zones, with investigators identifying sticks, newspaper material and a wooden match in a burned area on the ground in one case.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, his attorney said via email.

Witnesses at the scene said Maynard appeared mentally unstable. Officials confirmed that he previously worked at two California universities, where he taught seminars in criminology and criminal justice.

The circumstances surrounding Maynard and other alleged arsonists sparked a wave of speculation among far-right groups and conspiracy theorists, some of whom falsely claimed that members of Antifa were intentionally setting fires as part of an elaborate political conspiracy.

But the motives behind arson are more complex than that, said Glenn Corbett, associate professor of fire science and public administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“There are dozens of reasons people set fires,” Corbett said, listing examples such as malice, recklessness, revenge, mental health issues, or just “bad behavior.”

The recent spate of high-profile cases “comes with some degree of social upheaval,” Corbett said, including the COVID-19 pandemic and growing political and economic rifts. “Sometimes these are ‘trigger events’ that get people to do things they normally wouldn’t do.”

But arson-related fires are particularly dangerous given the west’s record-breaking heat and drought, which have parched and burned the landscape – leading to faster, hotter and more intense wildfires than ever before.

“The volume, size and ferocity of the fire is directly related to what is burning,” Corbett said. “High drought and low humidity and no rain…this is a prime situation for a fire, and certainly one that is very difficult to contain.”

One fire that quickly spiraled out of control was the Fawn Fire in Shasta County, which was allegedly started by a 31-year-old Caltech graduate named Alexandra Souverneva, who authorities said used CO2 cartridges and a lighter near the area source of fire was found.

The fire grew rapidly amid dry wood and strong winds. By the end of its 10-day run, it had injured three firefighters, destroyed 185 buildings and charred more than 8,500 acres.

In December, Souverneva was admitted to a state psychiatric hospital after a judge found her mentally unfit to stand trial. Her attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

But legal experts say her case and others like it raise important questions about how the state responds to arson cases, which often involve external factors such as homelessness, mental health and drug use.

“The issue isn’t whether the punishment is appropriate to the crime — it’s that punishment through incarceration doesn’t necessarily get to the root of the problem,” said Louis Shapiro, defense attorney and former public defender in Los Angeles.

“Most arsonists have mental health issues that, if treated in time, would prevent the arson fires from fully breaking out,” he said. The “government must preempt these problems and proactively help people with mental health problems, rather than reacting to the damage after the fact. That has to be the focus.”

Joel Dvoskin, a forensic psychologist who has studied arson, said it’s important to distinguish between people with intellectual disabilities and those experiencing emotional crises.

“When people commit arson intended only to cause destruction, it’s a desperate thing, and we live in a time when many people are experiencing fear, anger and despair,” he said. “Those are the three emotions that do so much damage in our world, and I doubt arson is an exception.”

Like Shapiro, he said that incarceration is not always the answer, especially since the reasons for committing arson are so varied and complex.

In California, penalties for arson can include a fine or several years in prison. Shapiro said the outcomes of cases stemming from negligence — like a 2020 wildfire ignited by a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party — are harder to predict and depend largely on how the sentencing judge sees the case sees.

Dubbed the El Dorado Fire, this fire burned more than 22,000 acres and killed one firefighter.

It’s an example of the kind of fire that could explode in a wetter climate but instead fed on hot, dry conditions that turned it into a monster, said Ed Nordskog, arson investigator and co-author of the Arson Investigation in the wildland. ”

“The fuel is so dry because of the climate and if there’s wind then of course the fire is out for the races,” he said.

However, what appears to be a trend in arson in California may not actually reflect an increase in the number of people setting fires. California has more arson investigators than any other state and is becoming more proficient at catching criminals, Nordskog noted. States like Colorado, which appear to have fewer arson cases, don’t have as many investigators contributing to their statistics, he said.

Dmitry Gorin, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, also stressed that the numbers remain small.

“You see a lot [cases] it’s in the news now, and they usually happen during fire season when it’s dry and with high winds, so we hear about them,” Gorin said, “but actually, based on the percentage of criminal cases in court, they’re pretty rare in California.”

Some arsonists are easier to catch than others, like the woman who admitted to setting a fire near South Lake Tahoe in August after emerging from the scene in a bikini and “covered in scrapes and soot.” Other cases are more complicated, including the large number of fires set by people living at the intersection of wildland and city or by people struggling with mental health issues and drug use, Nordskog said.

But in almost all cases, the danger has increased, he said. “Every fire has the potential to become a huge megafire.”

Earlier this month, prosecutors filed reckless arson and firearms charges against David and Travis Smith, a father and son suspected of starting the Caldor fire near South Lake Tahoe. This fire, along with the Dixie Fire, was the first to burn from one side of the Sierra to the other, destroying the gold rush-era mountain town of Grizzly Flats.

The Smiths’ attorney, Mark Reichel, said via email that they were “100% innocent” and even called for help as soon as they discovered the fire. They intend to beat all charges, he said.

But the outcome of the case won’t do much to move the stats. Of the 140 arson arrests this year, only 29 fell in the “reckless” category, while 111 were premeditated, Cal Fire’s Muschetto said. The agency has issued about 360 subpoenas for fire and fireworks violations this year.

Still, the confluence of cases and conditions is undeniably creating more challenges for residents of the state and for those trying to protect them from wildfire’s worst effects.

“Whether it’s an accident, lightning, or arson, the risk of these fires growing faster increases with climate change,” Muschetto said. Is California Wildfire Arson Getting Worse?

Tom Vazquez

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