People who start wildfires should be held accountable.
There is a growing intolerance by both legal courts and citizens for wildfire arson, whether the start is deliberate or negligent or just plain accidental. The Washington Post recently reported on a legal case in Arizona, in which a couple of young men got off easy for their role in starting off a gi-normous fire, the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire. The Prescott Daily Courier editorial called it “Two days in jail. Five years probation. A lifetime of regret.”
In an opinion piece in the Seattle Times, wildland fire author John Maclean makes a strong point that legal and public opinions have shifted over the years about just how responsible a person is when a wildland fire is started — intentionally or accidentally. As he notes in his op-ed piece, back in 1953 a grand jury in Willows, California, refused to even indict an admitted arsonist on charges after he torched off what became the Rattlesnake Fire on the Mendocino National Forest. That fatal fire burned not far from the current North Pass Fire, and the Rattlesnake Fire killed 15 firefighters, most of them “missionary firefighters” who lived not far south of there.
As Maclean detailed in his now out-of-print book Fire and Ashes, Stan Pattan, the son of a respected Forest Service engineer, “had not intended to kill anyone,” or so the locals said. In those days, though, setting fires in the wildlands to clear brush, improve hunting opportunities, or maybe even get a little extra work on a going fire was a common practice — nothing to be ashamed of, much less illegal.
Stan Pattan did it, but he did do a little prison time. He certainly wasn’t charged with murder, like Raymond Oyler was for his part in the wildfire arson that started the 2006 Esperanza Fire that wiped out a 5-person USFS engine crew. That whole sordid tale is the subject of Maclean’s next book, which will be released this winter by Counterpoint Press.