A 47-year old man has been arrested for starting a vegetation fire not far from where the 501,000-acre Dixie Fire is burning in Northern California.
Gary Stephen Maynard was charged with starting the Ranch Fire on August 7 and is suspected of starting the Moon and Conard Fires in the same area on August 5 and 7, respectively. He may be linked to two other blazes in Northern California.
Lauren Horwood, Public Information Officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, told Wildfire Today that at a detention hearing today in Sacramento the judge decided to hold him without bond. He is scheduled for preliminary examination on August 24.
Mr. Maynard is a former instructor at universities in California including Santa Clara and Sonoma State.
Maynard was a part-time lecturer at Sonoma State University in its Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice during the fall of 2020, a university spokesperson told CNN. He taught two seminars on the topics of criminal justice and deviant behavior, according to school officials. Maynard was filling in for a faculty member who was on leave and was not reappointed for Spring 2021, the school spokesperson said.
Sonoma State University welcomed him as a new lecturer on August 31, 2020. Their description:
Dr. Gary Maynard graduated from Bowling Green State University, University of Alaska Fairbanks and Stony Brook University. He has three master’s degree (political science, theater arts, and sociology) and a Ph.D. in sociology. His teaching and research focus on the following topics: sociology of technology/social media, social psychology, sociology of health, deviance and crime, sociology of the mass media, youth and adolescence, global sociology, environmental sociology, the sociology of sports, the sociology of drug abuse and alcoholism and quantitative research methods.
Investigations are still ongoing. On August 8 a federal agent applied for a warrant to search Mr. Maynard’s vehicle, including the contents of his cell phone and a computer which were clearly visible in his vehicle.
He has not been charged with starting the Dixie Fire, but is being investigated for his responsibility in starting five others. They were all suppressed before growing large, in part because for some of them his vehicle was being tracked and arson investigators had access to the approximate location of his cell phone every 15 seconds. In a couple of cases US Forest Service Agents reported them immediately, were the first on scene, and did what they could to knock down the blazes until firefighters arrived.
Here is a breakdown of the five fires to which he is allegedly linked:
Cascade Fire, July 20, 2021
Mr. Maynard first came into the picture on July 20, 2021 when US Forest fire investigator Brian Murphy was investigating the Cascade Fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on the western slope of Mt. Shasta about 110 air miles northwest of the Dixie Fire. A black Kia Soul vehicle registered to Mr. Maynard was stuck in a rut on an unmaintained Forest Service road about 200 yards from the fire. He refused to identify himself to Investigator Murphy but it was later determined that it was Gary Stephen Maynard, a former university professor. Mr. Maynard asked the Special Agent to pull his vehicle out of the rut, but the Special Agent replied that he was not allowed to tow vehicles. Mr. Maynard’s uncooperative and agitated behavior led Investigator Murphy to conclude it was safest to distance himself from this man, and left the scene, but prior to departing he took a photograph of the stuck vehicle.
Another person in the area told investigators they had seen Mr. Maynard walk toward the general area where the Cascade Fire later started. In addition, two other small fires were discovered, one on each side of the road near where Mr. Maynard’s vehicle had been parked. Both contained what appeared to be burned newspaper and had self-extinguished. Tire tracks left at the scene were examined, measured, and photographed.
Everitt Fire, July 21, 2021
The next day, July 21, 2021, similar tire tracks left by a vehicle with the same wheel base were found at the Everitt Fire, another arson fire on the western slopes of Mt. Shasta in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Investigator Murphy applied for and received search warrants for the near-real-time location of Mr. Maynard’s cell phone and to attach a tracking device to his vehicle. After locating him using the cell phone data, two police officers pulled him over. While they were talking with him, Investigator Murphy installed a magnetic vehicle tracking device under the rear portion of the vehicle.
Moon Fire, August 5, 2021
The scenario described in the criminal complaint about another fire, the Moon Fire, was very different. Data from the tracking device showed that Mr. Maynard’s vehicle, while driving north on Mooney Road in the Lassen National Forest, passed the location where the Moon Fire was discovered soon after. The data showed the vehicle drove by the location at 55 mph, but did not stop — until traveling another 3/4 mile where it pulled over on the shoulder of the road for one minute and eight seconds at the end of a long straightaway. The investigator wrote in the complaint that the parking spot offered a view of the Moon Fire. The blaze started on the driver’s side of the road, which, Investigator Murphy said, “offered the opportunity to deliver an aerial ignition device from the driver’s side window.”
A nearby USFS Officer helped contain the fire, followed by a responding engine crew, limiting it to about five feet wide. Investigators narrowed the cause down to arson.
Ranch Fire, August 7, 2021
On August 7 the Ranch Fire (see photo above) started northwest of Susanville, California off Highway 44 in a very remote area where tracking showed Mr. Maynard’s vehicle had been parked for 28 hours. Investigators following and tracking Mr. Maynard called the location “Campsite 2.” This was northeast of the huge very active Dixie Fire and in an area closed to the public because of the fire. The new fire was discovered and reported by Investigator Murphy as he hiked to the site to look for tire track impressions. He wrote in the complaint:
As I neared Campsite 2, I observed a large column of grey and black smoke rising from the forest. I ran back to my vehicle and proceeded to notify the local USFS Fire Dispatch Center. I then returned to the fire, later named the Ranch Fire, and observed the wildfire burning along the forest floor, trees, and brush—an area that consisted of approximately ½ to 1 acre in size. I then observed the tire track impressions that had been left behind by the SUBJECT VEHICLE, which were located at the edge of this new wildland fire.
A CAL FIRE investigator determined the fire to be arson.
Conard Fire, August 7, 2021
Six minutes after he left the location of the Ranch Fire, Mr. Murphy’s tracking data showed that he stopped at another location for about 30 minutes. After he departed, an agent found what was later named the Conard Fire which burned about an acre very close to where the vehicle had been parked. Like the other fires, no obvious ignition device or technique was found, but all possible causes were eliminated except for arson.
Similar to many arsonists, after Mr. Maynard left the Conard Fire, he returned a few hours later, possibly to see the effects of his fire-setting. With the reports of multiple suspicious fires, state and local law enforcement officers responded to the area. A California Highway Patrol officer pulled him over for his unauthorized presence in the closure. After detecting the possible odor of marijuana, the officer used that as probable cause to search for open containers of marijuana; one was found and the officer issued a citation.
When questioned by US Forest Service agents, Mr. Maynard gave them incorrect information about his travels in the previous 24 hours that was not consistent with the tracking data. He denied setting any fires and, at one point, stated that if the agents were going to accuse him of starting fires that he would defend himself in court. Lassen County Sheriff Deputy Steven Lawton booked him in to the Lassen County Jail for violating California Penal Code 409.5, unauthorized entry into a closed emergency area. Later that evening, Deputy Lawton advised Mr. Maynard that a felony charge of arson (California Penal Code 451) was being added. At that point, Deputy Lawton said that Mr. Maynard became enraged and began kicking the jail cell door and screamed, “I’m going to kill you, f****** pig! I told those f****** I didn’t start any of those fires!”
U.S. Forest Service Agents conducted an extensive resources-intensive effort to track Mr. Maynard’s vehicle and were waiting in shifts nearby to track his movements and discover any fires he set. These were extraordinary precautions that were necessary because of the difficulty of finding someone in the forest without a tracker and the speed with which a fire can grow during a period of drought with hot, dry, and windy weather.
Considerations for holding Mr. Maynard in jail
The detention memo obtained by Wildfire Today laid out several reasons why Mr. Maynard should not be released while awaiting trial. Below are quotes, excerpts from the Detention Memo filed August 10, 2021:
- “First, arson is a dangerous crime and it is a crime for which it is particularly difficult to fashion conditions of release. Here, the nature and circumstances of Maynard’s arson offense show that he is particularly dangerous, even among arsonists. Over the course of the last several weeks, Maynard has set a series of fires in the vicinity of the Lassen National Forest and Shasta-Trinity National Forest. As the Court is likely aware, California is in the middle of a drought and a particularly early and difficult fire season consistent with the effects of climate change. The Wildland Arsonist: One of the Most Dangerous Criminals, WILDFIRE TODAY, Feb. 23, 2021, available online at https://wildfiretoday.com/2021/02/23/the-wildland-arsonist-one-of-the-most-dangerous-criminals (last viewed Aug. 10, 2021).
- “Words cannot describe this additional threat to firefighters and other emergency personnel as effectively as the map attached as Exhibit 1 to this memorandum [above]. The map shows the boundaries of the Dixie fire where firefighters are laboring to protect the public at significant personal risk. The map also shows where Maynard set fires on August 5th and 7th behind those fire lines. Maynard’s fires were placed in the perfect position to increase the risk of firefighters being trapped between fires. But for the dedication and efforts of U.S. Forest Service investigators working around the clock to track Maynard, those fires would not have been discovered in their infancy. With Maynard’s growing fires at their backs, firefighters would have been placed at much greater risk.
- “Agents had installed a tracker on his vehicle. Where Maynard went, fires started. Not just once, but over and over again. As a result, the evidence is strong and Maynard will be convicted if he chooses to go to trial.
- “Maynard’s ties to the community also appear weak. He was living out of his car alone and traveling across large sections of Northern California. Maynard appears to have had difficulty holding a teaching job at the various universities at which he has taught. Therefore, this factor favors detention.
- “Finally, Maynard poses a particular danger to the community. He is a serial arsonist, during a dangerous time for state and the public from wildfires. Wildfires can and do kill Californians and destroy their homes. Virtually entire towns have been destroyed already this year as well as in prior fire seasons. Moreover, the manner in which Maynard chooses to set his fires is particularly dangerous to first responders who are already stretched thin fighting large fires.”