California firefighter sentenced for arson

A reserve firefighter on the Tule River Indian Reservation in central California has been sentenced to two years in state prison for setting wildland fires. In a Visalia courtroom on Wednesday Zachary Janoko pleaded guilty to felony arson.

Below is an excerpt from the Porterville [California] Recorder.

…In July 2014, Janoko was arrested for suspicion of arson for starting fires on the Reservation and along the Tule riverbed. During the investigation, Janoko, who was then assigned to the Natural Resource Department at the Reservation, and who at times had assisted the Tule River Fire Department battling fires, was accused of causing the fires for financial gain.

“It was hard on people here. Zack had been assisting here,” said Jay Henshaw, wildland fire investigator with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He said Janoko had been a reserve firefighter that provided backup and support.

“We worked with the county, tribal police and Bureau of Indian Affairs on the investigation and were successful,” Henshaw said.

Henshaw attended Janoko’s sentencing in Visalia and said he was glad that Janoko had been caught and found guilty because it isn’t very often that arsonists are actually caught.

Serial arson suspect arrested in California

CAL FIRE Law Enforcement officers arrested 68 year old Michael Wayne Hamilton Sr. on May 11, suspected of starting 27 fires since 2012.

“The hard work that went in to making this arrest is a testament that we do not tolerate arson,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director.

Mr. Hamilton, a resident of Squaw Valley, was booked into Fresno County Jail on 27 counts of “Arson to Forest Lands”, and 27 counts of “Use of an Incendiary Device”. The 27 fires all occurred in Fresno County in 2012, 2014 and 2015. Twelve of the fires came during a fire setting spree between Monday, May 4, 2015 and Monday, May 11, 2015. One fire allegedly set by Mr. Hamilton burned in excess of 60 acres.

Montana firefighter charged with arson

Firestone Flats Fire

Firestone Flats Fire. Inciweb photo.

A firefighter in Montana is being charged with arson after admitting to starting multiple wildfires. One of the largest was the Firestone Flats Fire that burned 1,570 acres 25 miles north of Missoula, Montana in July and August of 2013.

Below is an excerpt from the Lake County Leader:

Phillip “Cody” Haynes, a wildland firefighter for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, told investigators he had started seven forest fires in the past three years, according to Lake County Prosecutor Steve Eschenbacher.
Haynes, who was charged with felony arson, appeared before District Court Judge Deborah K. Christopher March 19 for arraignment where Haynes requested legal counsel. Haynes is to be arraigned March 26.

Haynes did not admit to the alleged crimes until a CSKT fire investigator, two other CSKT firemen and a Lake County sheriff’s detective convinced him to confess.
According to court documents, Haynes took responsibility for setting several fires last year: the South Finley fire on July 28, the Saddle Mountain Fire on Aug. 18, the Hammer Fire on Aug. 25, as well as the Arlee Pines fire on July 17, 2013, and the Firestone Fire in July 2013.

On August 1, 2013 the following resources were assigned to the fire: Bob Fry’s, Western Montana Incident Management Team, 384 firefighters and support personnel, 3 Hotshot Crews, 6 other Hand Crews,19 Engines, 2 Helicopters, 12 pieces of Heavy Equipment, 7 Water Tenders, and 2 Heavy Air Tankers were available.

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

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.