Fire investigators honored for conviction of arsonist on 50 felony charges

Law enforcement officers with the North Carolina Forest Service (NCFS) were named the 2014 Investigative Team of the Year by the North Carolina Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators at the North Carolina/South Carolina Arson Conference in Myrtle Beach. The event was attended by more than 360 fire investigators, fire marshals and detectives from both states.

Investigative team of the year

Left to right, Amery Wells, law enforcement supervisor, N.C. Forest Service; Capt. David Newton, Scotland County Sheriff’s Office; Michael Hardin Jr., senior assistant district attorney, District 16A; Sam Niemyer, D-3 law enforcement district ranger, N.C. Forest Service; Jamie Laviner, investigator, Scotland County Sheriff’s Office. Not pictured: Kristy Newton, district attorney, District 16A, and Dawn Layton,chief assistant district attorney, District 20A.

The honor was bestowed upon NCFS Law Enforcement Supervisor Amery Wells, Law Enforcement Rockingham District Ranger Sam Niemyer and other members of the team for an investigation that took place between July 2011 and May 2012. During that period, 78 fires were intentionally set in Scotland, Richmond and Hoke counties. The team used a combination of strategies to narrow down the case to a single suspect who would later be charged and convicted on 50 felony counts of setting fires and malicious use of incendiary devices.

Robert Smith, NCFS chief of law enforcement, said the investigation was challenging and unique due to the geographic area that covered portions of three counties, eight fire districts and two prosecutorial districts, among other factors. He pointed out that investigating a series of fires, even if a few are in the same general area, is complicated.

“Effective communications between investigative team members and numerous resources from different counties and fire districts was critical to the success of this investigation,” Smith said.

Smith said developing the working relationships and overall trust between all of those parties was essential. He credited the team with doing an outstanding job to develop and nurture longstanding relationships that transcended jurisdictional lines and using their individual strengths and skills to work extremely well together.

“They used a combination of good old-fashioned investigative skills mixed with technology such as tracking devices and GIS mapping, to put together a thorough case,” he said.

The factor of time and distance repeatedly challenged investigators to develop new strategies for static and mobile surveillance that covered a large geographic area over a lengthy time span. It was, however, a challenge to get the legal authority to use the tracking device. In January 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in U.S. vs. Jones that required a search warrant for tracking devices. In May 2012, judges were still new to this case, as was the investigative team, making the warrant process more time-consuming than normal. The team collaborated on proper verbiage and content prior to discussing the case with the signing judge to be sure everything was in proper order and to the letter of the law.

The team also had the daunting task of collecting and analyzing a large volume of data, evidence, leads, witness interviews, photographs and other information, which quickly became a huge undertaking to sort and track. There was also the ongoing process of analyzing the data to formulate hypotheses, which was even more challenging and often frustrating for the team.

The suspect turned out to be a former law enforcement officer. As such, he was familiar with investigative tactics, interview techniques and surveillance techniques. It was later determined that he was also using a scanner to monitor radio traffic of emergency response personnel.

“Considering all of the challenges, the investigative team maintained a unified and determined effort to bring successful closure to one of the most complex wildland fire investigation cases in North Carolina history,” Smith said.

The team invested more than 1,000 man hours of time and resources and wrote in excess of 1,000 pages of discovery evidence. Their work led to 52 felony charges for intentionally setting fires and use of malicious incendiary devices, and a $1 million dollar bond set for the suspect, the largest in North Carolina for a wildland fire case. The suspect pleaded guilty in November 2013 to 50 of the 52 felony charges and was ordered to pay more than $15,000 in restitution. He was sentenced to 60 months of supervised probation to begin in May 2016 at the end of an unrelated federal prison sentence.

“I’m very proud to have played just a small role in this investigation. But even more so, to have witnessed the amount of dedication, professionalism and teamwork these guys demonstrated throughout this entire investigation,” Smith said. “They are all very deserving of this award for 2014.”

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

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Wednesday morning one-liners

Engine rollover, Warm Springs, Oregon

Engine rollover, Warm Springs, Oregon, July 18, 2014.

*The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has published a report on a BIA engine that rolled over near Warm Springs, Oregon, July 18, 2014. Two people were injured, one seriously. The LLC says more than 50 fire vehicles have rolled over in the last 10 years.

*A Colorado artist has created a work consisting of rectilinear pillars suspended from the ceiling, each measuring nine feet tall, meant to convey the idea of a wildfire.

*A man spotted running from the 50-acre Foothill Fire in Ventura, California was arrested on suspicion of setting the blaze.

*Fire officials in Washington state suspect an arsonist is responsible for igniting 23 fires in less than two weeks. Most of them have been vegetation fires.

*A firefighting vehicle in Australia has been outfitted with drop-down steel wheels so that it can follow a steam-powered train, putting out wildfires started by the steam engine.

*In other news from Australia, a Senator gave a speech, titled, Thank you For Smoking, praising nicotine fiends for their $8 billion a year contribution to the economy. He said he did the math: Last year smokers cost the health care system $320 million and another $150 million in bushfire control.

*Researchers have found that “recent (2001–2010) beetle outbreak severity was unrelated to most field measures of subsequent fire severity, which was instead driven primarily by extreme burning conditions (weather) and topography.” Unfortunately, to read the article, researched and published by government employees, it will cost you $10 for two days of access. If the researchers, Brian J. Harvey, Daniel C. Donato, and Monica G. Turner, are going to hide the results of their taxpayer-funded research behind a pay wall, what’s the point in hiring researchers? Support Open Access.

*Firefighters are on alert in the Philippines for wildfires that may start from an eruption of the Mayon volcano.

*Firefighters are on lessened alert in the Black Hills after the area received two to five inches of rain over the last few days.

*California has burned through its wildfire-fighting budget — $209 million — just as it faces what is historically the worst of the fire season.

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Man charged with arson for starting the King Fire

The El Dorado County Sheriff’s office has arrested a man for intentionally starting what has become the 73,184-acre King Fire west of Lake Tahoe, California. Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, of Pollock Pines was charged Thursday morning with a single count of arson of forest land. The charges include a special allegation — arson with aggravating factors. The complaint said those factors are:

A firefighter, peace officer, or other emergency personnel suffered great bodily injury as a result of the offense.

Wayne Allen Huntsman

Wayne Allen Huntsman

The criminal complaint, below, shows four past felonies, including three 1997 convictions in Santa Cruz County which include assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft and auto theft.

CAL FIRE and U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers, in conjunction with the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office and the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office cooperated to bring the charges against Mr. Huntsman.

Several media outlets are reporting that he is being held in lieu of $10-million bail.

DA Announces Filing of Criminal Complaint Against Wayne Allen Huntsman

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Wildfire briefing, September 4, 2014

Kilauea lava flow in Hawaii emerges again from ground crack, continues advancing eastward, ignites forest

The following photos and videos were released by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (USGS) (Dated September 3, 2014 and September 1, 2014) .

Lava flow

This view looks east at the far end of the June 27th lava flow. In the center of the photograph is an isolated pad of lava which came out of ground crack last week. Further movement of lava within ground cracks has enabled the flow front to advance farther east, with lava issuing from a ground crack in the upper left portion of the photograph, where plumes of smoke mark the location of lava burning forest. (USGS)

Lava flow

One small portion of the flow front was quite vigorous, with an open stream of lava moving through the forest. (USGS)

More information about the lava flow.

Woman who bragged about setting fire, sentenced to prison

The woman who posted on Facebook about setting a fire was sentenced to more than a year in prison by U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernandez on Wednesday. She was also ordered to perform 200 hours of community service in the fire-damaged area.

“You owe them much more than that,” Judge Hernandez told her.

Sadie Renee Johnson said she was suffering from alcohol and drug problems and told the judge she would turn her life around.

On July 22, 2013, two days after throwing a firecracker into vegetation to start a fire so her firefighter friends would not be “bored”, Ms. Johnson, 23, wrote on her Facebook page: “Like my fire?”

It grew to become the 51,480-acre Sunnyside Turnoff Fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, the 15th largest fire in the United States in 2013.

Ms. Johnson pleaded guilty on May 19 to the crime of setting brush and timber on fire.

Another insurance company offers homeowners proactive protection from ongoing fires

The Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company has expanded its wildfire program to include response services, which may include the application of gel or retardant solutions to a policyholder’s home and surrounding vegetation. The Wildfire Response Program, which already included wildfire assessments and extensive wildfire preparation for homes and land, now provides a complimentary additional layer of protection to eligible Prestige Home℠ policyholders who enroll.

During a wildfire, actions to defend a home may include:

  • Removal of combustible materials from around the home
  • Set-up of a perimeter sprinkler system
  • Spray the home or surrounding property with a fire-blocking solution.

The Wildfire Response Program is currently offered in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

LA County brings on an Air-Crane and two scoopers

As they have done for the last 21 fire seasons, the Los Angeles County Fire Department has contracted for two water-scooping air tankers. The CL-415s, leased from the Quebec government, started at the first of this month and will be able to carry up to 1,620 gallons of water with each drop. Due to numerous fires late in 2013 and the Colby Fire in January, 2014, they worked several weeks beyond their planned December termination date last year.

The department also brought on a Helitanker, an Erickson Air-Crane S-64F that can hold 2,650 gallons of water or retardant.

More information and photos are at Fire Aviation.

Colorado’s multi-mission aircraft is in service

The state of Colorado has a temporary version of their multi-mission aircraft officially in service while the two they purchased are being outfitted and configured. It is being operated and maintained by Bode Aviation under contract to Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). Until the Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) personnel have completed their training, SNC will be providing qualified “Sensor Operators.

Today, for training purposes, the aircraft and crew are using its sensors to detect and map a prescribed fire near Gypsum, Colorado.

More information and a photo are at Fire Aviation.

 

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Woman who bragged on Facebook about starting a fire faces prison sentence

Sunnyside Turnoff Fire

A burnout on the Sunnyside Turnoff Fire in 2013. InciWeb photo.

It turns out that bragging on social media about starting a wildfire can lead to a prison sentence.

On July 22, 2013, two days after throwing a firecracker into vegetation to start a fire so her firefighter friends would not be “bored”, Sadie Renee Johnson, 23, wrote on her Facebook page: “Like my fire?”
Sadie Johnson
It grew to become the 51,480-acre Sunnyside Turnoff Fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, the 15th largest fire in the United States in 2013.

Ms. Johnson pleaded guilty on May 19 to the crime of setting brush and timber on fire.

The Department of Justice said she admitted that she was riding as passenger in a car on Route 3 near Sunnyside Drive when she used a lighter to light a small firework, then tossed it out the passenger window into the brush along the side of the road.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported that the estimated costs of suppressing the fire was $4 million. Prosecutors said the approximate cost for the Bureau of Indian Affairs was $7,901,973. According to the law, Ms. Johnson is required to pay full restitution.

Ms. Johnson is being held at the Columbia County Jail, awaiting sentencing scheduled for September 3. Prosecutors said Johnson faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised release.

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Girl, 13, to stand trial for starting Cocos Fire in San Marcos, California

A judge has ruled that a 13-year old girl is competent to stand trial after being accused of starting the Cocos Fire. In May the blaze burned about 1,995 acres and destroyed 36 homes in San Marcos, California, north of San Diego. The judge announced his decision in a hearing where the girl pleaded not guilty to four arson-related felony charges.

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

During the proceeding the Deputy District Attorney told San Diego Superior Court Judge Rod Shelton that the girl’s parents, who were present in the courtroom, could be ordered to pay restitution in the case. County fire officials have estimated the costs of property damage and fire suppression to be about $12 million.

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.

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