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. The 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.
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.