Teenage girl found guilty of starting Cocos Fire in San Diego County

The teenage girl on trial for starting the Cocos Fire north of San Diego was found guilty Tuesday morning. The prosecution’s case hinged on expert testimony from a CAL FIRE investigator who said a burning ember from a fire the girl admitted starting in her back yard traveled 0.44 miles to ignite the fire that eventually burned 1,995 acres and destroyed 36 homes in San Marcos, California.

Conflicting expert testimony from a retired CAL FIRE investigator who said an ember from the girl’s fire could not have traveled that far apparently was discounted by the judge, who ruled in the trial. There was no jury, because the defendant was a juvenile — 13 years old when the fire started in May, 2014.

The girl told investigators she “didn’t want to kill anybody” — only to “see what would happen” when she set the first of two fires in her backyard, according to an audio tape played in court on Monday.

The damages caused by the fire amounted to about $10 million. Sentencing is set for April 15 in juvenile court.

map Cocos Fire

Map showing the Cocos Fire. The dark red squares represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:27 p.m. PDT, May 15, 2014. The location of the icons can be as much as a mile in error.

Articles at Wildfire Today tagged Cocos Fire.


Prosecution of girl accused of starting Cocos Fire hinges on an ember that may have traveled 0.44 miles

The trial began today for a girl who was 13 when she was accused of starting a fire last year in San Diego County. In May, 2014 the Cocos Fire burned 1,995 acres and destroyed 36 homes in San Marcos, California, north of San Diego.

The prosecution hinges on the theory that when the girl ignited a “branch” in her back yard, an ember from that fire traveled 0.44 miles to start the Cocos Fire west of Escondido and south of San Marcos. According to NBC 7 in San Diego the defense will have an investigator from CAL FIRE testify that the ember could not have traveled that far to start the fire.

The Cocos Fire, first called the Washingtonia Fire, was one of at least 10 fires that burned in San Diego County during the same time period in mid-May, 2014.

map Cocos Fire

Map showing the Cocos Fire. The dark red squares represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:27 p.m. PDT, May 15, 2014. The location of the icons can be as much as a mile in error.

Our May, 2014 coverage of the Cocos Fire.


Two former BIA firefighters convicted of arson

Laguna Fire, 2011

Laguna Fire, 2011. BLM photo.

Wildfire Today has learned that two former Bureau of Indian Affairs wildland firefighters have been convicted of arson. In late February, 2015 Joshua Joseph Gilbert and Blase Anthony Smith pleaded guilty to felony charges of starting wildfires in southeast California and southwest Arizona in 2009 and 2011.

Both firefighters were charged with starting at least one fire north of Yuma, Arizona — the Centipede Fire on October 17, 2009 on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation (map).

Mr. Gilbert admitted helping to start another fire also, the May 18, 2011 Laguna Fire. With strong winds of 25-35 mph with gusts to 45 mph the fire burned through Betty’s Kitchen Wildlife and Interpretive Area (Betty’s Kitchen is a significant archaeological site which was recorded in the National Registry), Pratt Nursery, Mittry South Restoration Area, and into Mittry Lake Wildlife Area (map), totaling 751 acres. The firefighter lit the fire on the California side of the Colorado River but it jumped the river and spread into Arizona. Betty's Kitchen signThe fire then tracked north through the popular recreation sites at Laguna Dam and Mittry Lake. Several historical sites were damaged or destroyed and wildlife habitat was burned. On May 23, 2011 an early cost estimate for the suppression of the fire was $300,000.

Dennis Godfrey, a Public Affairs Officer with the Bureau of Land Management, said Mr. Smith was directly involved with illegally starting multiple fires on BLM, tribal, and state trust lands in Arizona and California between the years 2009 and 2012. It was determined that BIA and tribal firefighters at BIA’s Fort Yuma Agency in Arizona had either intentionally started fires on tribal or BLM administered public lands, or were paying Smith to start the fires. The firefighters were or had been Administratively Determined or AD firefighters, and worked only on an as-needed basis for the government, usually when there was an ongoing fire.

Extensive Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation (ESR) was required to restore 86 acres of habitat and recreation facilities that were damaged or destroyed in the fire. The BLM prepared an Environmental Assessment that analyzed the alternatives for restoration.

Between 2009 and 2012 there were an average of 31 fires a year in the Fort Yuma area. After the investigation began in 2012 the average number of fires per year dropped to five between 2013 and 2014.

Both firefighters pleaded guilty of violating Title 18, U.S.C. §1855, Timber Set Afire, a Class D Felony. The maximum penalty for the offense is a fine of $250,000 and/or 5 years in prison.

Mr. Gilbert was given five years’ supervised probation with six months’ home detention and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $40,624. The court’s justification for a sentence that was far below the maximum was based on their assessment that he admitted to his own criminal activity and provided agents with information regarding other individuals very early in the investigation. Most significantly, Mr. Gilbert provided information implicating Blase Smith.

Although Mr. Smith had already confessed, his statements were unreliable and Mr. Gilbert provided necessary corroboration which would have been essential if Smith went to trial. In addition, the court said, he is only 25 years old and appears to be the sole financial support for his wife and two children. He lost his job as a firefighter as a result of this crime and now owes a substantial amount of restitution, according to documents filed in court. The sentencing decision includes the following:

His criminal history consists of a series of misdemeanor offenses related to his alcohol abuse. The instant offense is relatively old and it appears that the defendant has mended his ways in many respects. Other than one arrest in April of 2014, Gilbert has not committed any crimes since 2011 and has complied fully with his release conditions. The recommended sentence will allow the defendant to receive appropriate treatment for his substance abuse issues, [and] will provide a just punishment for the offense.

The other firefighter, Mr. Blase Anthony Smith, was sentenced to 51 months in prison with credit for time already served. After his release he will be placed on supervised release for three years.

In addition, Mr. Smith was ordered to pay restitution of $3,813,983, “due immediately”, in order to repay several organizations for suppression of the Laguna Fire and the later restoration efforts.

The restitution is broken down as follows: $2,143,592.35 to the Bureau of Reclamation; $80,000 to Arizona Western College; $15,000 to Northern Arizona University; $1,396,925 to the Bureau of Land Management; $174,567 to the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and $3,898 to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

If the $3.8 million is not paid immediately as ordered, Mr. Smith will not be charged interest or penalties on any unpaid balances. After assessing his ability to write a check for $3.8 million, the court ordered him to pay $50 a month. At that rate the organizations will receive their full amounts after 76,282 years. While in prison, he will be required to pay $25 a month.

In May, 2011 a reward of $10,000 was offered by the BIA for information about the start of the Laguna fire which led to a conviction. BLM spokesperson Dennis Godfrey said someone had applied for the reward, but as far as he knew it had not yet been approved.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs refused to provide any information about the fires or the firefighters.

Laguna fire briefing

A briefing on the Laguna Fire in 2011. BLM photo.

This employment status of the two firefighters in this article was corrected on March 9 after it was found that incorrect information had been provided. The two firefighters were or had been AD, and were not regular federal government employees.


Pennsylvania firefighter pleads guilty to arson

Dupont Volunteer Hose CompanyA volunteer firefighter in northeast Pennsylvania has pleaded guilty to setting 13 fires in Laflin, Pittston, and Dupont while he was a firefighter with the Dupont Volunteer Hose Company. Six of them were vegetation fires.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Times Leader:

A volunteer firefighter turned serial arsonist must pay tens of thousands in restitution — with more to come — after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a number of 2012 fires.

David Charles Donnora, 25, of Pittston, entered guilty pleas Monday to arson, burglary and burning charges before Luzerne County Judge David W. Lupas, court records indicate. He must make more than $20,000 in restitution in connection with two of the blazes, court papers say, but that figure is likely to climb as restitution in at least two other cases remains uncalculated.

Donnora is scheduled to be sentenced April 27.

Donnora confessed to state police during an interview about the Dec. 10 fire at 251 Main Street, Dupont, police say. He was the only firefighter from the Dupont department who did not appear to be interviewed by state police the day after the fire.

He allegedly told police he set the Dec. 10 fire and 12 others because he enjoyed battling them and responded to each one he set.

The fires Donnora allegedly admitted to setting included two Dupont structure fires; two separate fires at the same unoccupied building and a trailer fire in Pittston Township; and six brush fires and a railroad tie fire in Laflin.


Arson charges filed against two who started fire with exploding target, orphaning mountain lion cubs

Mountain lion cubs

Photo by Cory Rennaker, Bitterroot National Forest Helitack, USFS.

Felony arson charges have been filed against two people who allegedly started the Three Mile Fire nine miles east of Florence, Montana in August, 2014. The fire burned about 50 acres before firefighters extinguished it at a cost estimated at $94,000.

During the initial attack on the fire, Bitterroot National Forest firefighters rescued a pair of mountain lion cubs. The kittens, just a few weeks old, were taking shelter under a burning log. Firefighters called in a helicopter bucket drop to cool the log, and the kittens, although wet from the 600 gallons of water, were rescued. They were adopted by the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo and Aquarium, and on September 23 made an appearance on David Letterman’s show along with Jack Hanna.

The two people being charged were busted at least in part by writing about their adventure on Facebook that amounted to a confession. They should also be charged with Felony Dumb.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Missoulian:

Tristan C. Olson, 30, of Missoula and Caitlin E. Hoover, 28, of Stevensville are scheduled to appear Feb. 17 on a series of felony charges stemming from the Aug. 29, 2014, fire on the Three Mile Wildlife Management Area.

The fire was started by an exploding target that was lodged in a tree surrounded by waist-high cured grass. The explosion ignited the tree and the fire quickly spread.

On Aug. 29, Hoover posted on Facebook: “My old pal Tristan Olson just showed up at mi casa and woke me up with a mikes hard ass slurpie and some guns and ammo…heading for the hills…ha! Yay!!!”

The last post on Olson’s Facebook page for the same day showed a photograph of a column of smoke rising above the Three Mile WMA fire with Olson’s back facing the camera. The caption read: “Dang…”


After receiving a search warrant for Hoover’s Facebook account, the affidavit said the warden found she had deleted photos of the two shooting together on the WMA.

He also found a conversation that Hoover had with someone named “Topher Devoe” on Sept. 21. In answering Devoe’s question of “what other crazy things have you done,” Hoover responded: “I just started a forest fire by shooting an assault rifle at an exploding target and burnt down 60 acres of forest. Shhh the fire is still under investigation.”

Hoover attached the photo of the Olson watching the smoke rising from the WMA.

We have written about exploding targets many times before. The dangerous devices consist of two ingredients that when mixed by the end user create an explosive when shot by a high-velocity projectile.

Exploding targets have caused many fires since they became more popular in recent years. They have been banned in some areas, and caused the death of one person. In June, 2013 a man attending a bachelor-bachelorette party in Minnesota was killed after shrapnel from the device struck him in the abdomen causing his death. The Missoulian reported that two years ago a woman in Ohio had her hand nearly blown off while taking a cellphone video of a man firing at an exploding target placed in a refrigerator about 150 feet away.

The U.S. Forest Service has banned exploding targets in the Northern Region, which includes Montana. The Three Mile Fire occurred on state protected land in a Wildlife Management Area where target shooting is not permissible. The state of Montana has not taken action to specifically prohibit the use of exploding targets, although they can become illegal when fire restrictions are in place.

Orphaned mountain lion cubs fire

The orphaned cubs after being adopted. Photo by the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo and Aquarium.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.


Wildfire briefing, January 14, 2015

Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano lava ignites brush fire

A lava flow from the Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii ignited a brush fire on Tuesday that burned 270 acres. It was surrounded by fire breaks, but at 5:30 p.m. local time a dozer was working to clean up the existing break and construct a new line closer to the head of the fire. According to a Hawaii County Civil Defense update, the brush fire was west of Highway 130, about 1.5 miles from the Aina­loa subdivision. The agency said Tuesday afternoon that neither the brush fire nor the stalled lava flow pose an immediate threat to communities.

Granite Mountain Hotshots’ families treated to European boat trip

From the Daily Courier:

The families of Prescott’s fallen [Granite Mountain] Hotshots participated in a unique trip over the holidays. They were given an opportunity to see and visit the historic sites along Europe’s Danube River while finding solace amongst others who also have experienced the tragic loss of loved ones in recent U.S. tragedies.

Family members of the Hotshots were joined by family members of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire on June 30, 2013 in the worst wildland firefighting tragedy in more than 80 years…

The paper said 19 family members participated in the trip.

News from Australia: