On Tuesday a former firefighter for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Diamond Springs Fire Protection District was sentenced for wildland fire arson a second time, this time for five years. Benjamin Cunha, 33, of Placerville, California had previously admitted starting at least 30 fires from August 2005 through September 2007 in the El Dorado/Amador area.
Two of those fires, the Mine and Palmer Fires, burned onto federal land. Mr. Cunha confessed he used a distinctive time-delay incendiary device, which he had also used to start many of his other fires.
Mr. Cunha, who came from a family of firefighters, was a seasonal firefighter for CAL FIRE from 2001 to 2003. According to the agency when the 2005-2007 fires were set he was a volunteer for the Diamond Springs Fire Protection District in El Dorado County.
He indicated that his motivation for setting the fires was to overcome boredom, to earn overtime pay for fighting the fires, and to impress his peers. Even though he was a volunteer, he could have been eligible for payment during busy periods, said Robert Combs, chief of the Diamond Springs district.
In 2008 he was sentenced to 365 days in jail, which he was allowed to serve in a program that allowed him to leave the jail each day for work and return for sleep. Mr. Cunha was also sentenced to 72 months of probation. The terms of probation included GPS monitoring during the fire season. He completed his term of probation in the summer of 2012.
The next summer, July and August of 2013, authorities investigated two new suspected arson fires in the El Dorado/Amador area. Law enforcement determined that at least one of the fires was started using a time-delay incendiary device similar to the devices Mr. Cunha had admitted to using in the 2007-2008 series of El Dorado/Amador county fires and he emerged as a primary suspect in the 2013 fires. Rather than continue the investigation of the 2013 fires, and to curb the risk of any additional fires in the meantime, he was charged for the 2007 Mine Fire that the government alleged burned onto federal land in El Dorado County. Cunha had admitted to setting the fire in a 2008 videotaped interview with local law enforcement. As part of the bargain struck in the written plea agreement in this latest case, the U.S. Attorney’s office agreed not to prosecute the two 2013 fires.
“Benjamin Cunha set over 30 fires in El Dorado and Amador Counties. ATF worked with our local partners and utilized several resources to perfect an investigation for federal prosecution,” said Special Agent in Charge Jill A. Snyder.
In addition to the five year prison sentence, on Tuesday U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez also ordered Mr. Cunha to pay $246,862 in restitution to CAL FIRE for the cost of fighting the 2007 Mine Fire. Prosecutors had requested the judge sentence him to 7.5 years behind bars because he acknowledged that he is a serial arsonist and “there is a high need to protect the community from Cunha.”
This case was the product of an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, with assistance from CAL FIRE.