Old Fire arsonist receives death penalty

Rickie Lee Fowler
Rickie Lee Fowler

Rickie Lee Fowler received the death penalty today for starting the 2003 Old fire that destroyed 1,003 homes, burned 91,000 acres, and led to five deaths. He was convicted on August 15 of two arson charges and of murdering the five people who died of heart attacks after their homes burned or while they evacuated during the fire in San Bernardino County, California. When he was convicted, the jury recommended that Fowler be sentenced to death but the judge had the discretion to impose that or life in prison.

This morning Superior Court Judge Michael A. Smith, after hearing arguments by attorneys and statements by the victims’ families, confirmed the death penalty for Fowler. The sentence will automatically be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

In the trial, the State employed the same principle used when prosecutors in neighboring Riverside County won a death penalty conviction against Raymond Lee Oyler, an auto mechanic who set the 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five federal firefighters. Oyler is believed to be the first person in the U.S. to be convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in a wildland arson case.

Old Fire
Old Fire, looking west from Strawberry Peak. Photo taken October 26, 2003 by Dave Schumaker.

Before the trial Mr. Fowler said he and three men in a van had intended to rob John Aylward, a person he identified as his godfather, but realized they were too drunk or stoned to pull it off. Instead, they decided to start a fire, as one person testified before a grand jury, “to burn John’s house down”.

In an interview with investigators, Mr. Fowler said he ignited a road flare and threw it into the vegetation, but corrected himself and said one of the other men in the van struck the flare. In a later interview, he said he intended to strike and throw the flare, but Martin Valdez Jr. took it from him, struck it, and threw it into the brush.

While in prison before the trial, Mr. Fowler was convicted of sodomizing another jail inmate and for that was sentenced to three 25-years-to-life prison terms.

California: man convicted of assaulting a firefighter

Tanker 910 dropping on Buck fire
Tanker 910 dropping on Buck fire. Still image from ABC7 video.

A California jury convicted a man from Sage, California (map) Thursday of assaulting a firefighter with a deadly weapon. The incident occurred on the Buck Fire which burned 2,681 acres south of Hemet August 14, 2012.

Gregory Lance Good Riverside County Sheriff photo
Gregory Lance Good Riverside County Sheriff photo

Gregory Lance Good, 60, became angry with a Riverside County Fire Department captain and was accused of driving his vehicle at the captain and running over his foot. Due to a lack of evidence he was acquitted of a charge of shooting at three people that he thought were trespassing on his property earlier in the year.

He could face a maximum sentence of nine years for the assault on the firefighter.

The Buck Fire was more eventful than your typical fire. An inmate firefighter died after he became ill on the fire. In addition, two CAL FIRE firefighters were injured when they were struck by retardant dropped from a CAL FIRE air tanker. They were transported to a hospital where they were treated and released.

Below is video of a DC-10, tanker 910, dropping on the Buck fire.


CAL FIRE kept $3.6 million in off-the-books account

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection kept $3.6 million in a non-standard account without the approval of the state Department of Finance. Articles in the LA Times and Wall Street Journal spell out the details of the account that received settlement funds from companies responsible for wildfires. CAL FIRE’s regulations require that settlement money be deposited into the state’s general fund where it would be available to other state agencies in the regular budget appropriation process.

The account, “Wildland Fire Investigation Training and Equipment Fund”, sometimes referred to as “WiFiter”, was held by the California District Attorneys Association, a non-profit organization. Below is an excerpt from the LA Times article:

The department established the fund with the district attorney’s association in 2005. The association charged a fee to hold the money. The amount of that fee changed over the years. When it began, the prosecutors received 3% of the money when it came in and 15% when Cal Fire pulled money out for training or equipment.

The department used the fund to purchase equipment, such as 600 digital cameras and 26 evidence sheds for $600,000. According to the audits and emails, Cal Fire insisted that the equipment belonged to the association. That led [CALFIRE auditor Anthony] Favro to send an email to [former CALFIRE Director Del] Walters and Janet Barentson, the department’s current deputy chief director, asking, “Isn’t this a gift of public funds?”

The 18% interest taken out of taxpayer funds sounds almost like loan shark rates.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The account came to light as a result of lawsuits filed by Cal Fire and the federal government against Sierra Pacific Industries Inc., a Redding, Calif., lumber company. The suits claimed the massive 2007 “Moonlight Fire” was started by a bulldozer driver at a company hired by Sierra Pacific, which denies any involvement with the blaze.

In 2009, a Cal Fire investigator wrote to Sierra Pacific seeking reimbursement for the cost of fighting the fire, which consumed 65,000 acres of public and private lands in northeast California, according to Cal Fire. The letter asked for payment in two separate checks: one for $7.7 million to the state, and one for $400,000 to a nonprofit that administered WiFiter, according to Cal Fire.

Sierra Pacific refused to pay either bill. The federal government and California proceeded to sue Sierra Pacific in federal and state court, respectively. In the midst of discovery in the suits, the company uncovered the WiFiter account, according to lawyers and Cal Fire.

The account itself was not exactly secret, however it was not public knowledge it was an off-the-books account not subject to the standard state regulations for managing and spending money. We found a memo from former CAL FIRE Director Walters, apparently written in 2009, summarizing the year’s fire season in which he mentioned the account:

Office of Program Accountability (OPA) finalized three audits (Volcan Incident, Wildland Fire Investigation Training and Equipment Fund, and Indirect Cost PCA 99200)…

The current Director of CAL FIRE, Ken Pemlott signed a new agreement with the association in 2011 but froze the fund in August, 2012 after, according to the LA Times, “receiving a briefing from his staff, said Janet Upton, a Cal Fire spokeswoman”.

Wildfire briefing, January 25, 2013

Caylym continues to develop containers for dropping retardant

Caylym system
Caylym system dispersing a liquid after exiting an aircraft. Photo credit: Caylym

Since Wildfire Today last covered their disposable container for delivering retardant over wildfires,the Caylym company has continued to develop and promote their concept. The system consists of containers constructed of cardboard, plywood, a plastic bladder, and dozens of yards of straps. They hold 264 gallons each and are designed to be carried in military aircraft such as the C-130 or C-27 using the standard cargo system. The containers when empty weigh 100 pounds.

At Fire Aviation we have more photos and a video, as well the results of our interview with Rick Goddard, the Managing Director of Caylym

South Africa: Firefighter Man killed fighting a fire near Clanwilliam

(UPDATE January 26, 2013: It turns out the man that was killed was not a trained firefighter, volunteer or paid. As so frequently happens in remote areas of South Africa, he lived nearby and was doing what he could to fight the fire while hoping that firefighters might show up.)

A man has died fighting a wildfire near Clanwilliam in South Africa (map). Christo Fourie, a retired bank manager, had been missing since Wednesday and his body was found Thursday in a burned area near his vehicle. A police spokesperson said Mr. Fourie was caught in the fire but the exact circumstances of his death were being investigated. A news report described the man as a volunteer firefighter.

The fire has burned 24,000 hectares (59,305 acres) and is being fought by firefighters supported by helicopters and four air tankers.

Missouri: Fire destroys Mammoth-area home 

A wildfire destroyed a home on County Road 527 off the T Highway near Mammoth, Missouri on Monday. The fire was fought by the Timber Knob and Pontiac VFDs for several hours but the home was a total loss.

Utah: fire baloons may become illegal

Fire Balloon, Mercedes
Fire Balloon — a screen grab from a Mercedes commercial on CBS, November 4, 2012.

Proposed legislation in Utah would outlaw fire balloons, sometimes called Chinese lanterns or sky lanterns. These devices are small, lightweight, inexpensive hot air balloons powered by burning material at the base. They can be made out of common household materials or purchased in large quantities online.

We first wrote about fire balloons in November after seeing the concept promoted by Mercedes in a car commercial on network television. An article in the Deseret News quotes Coy Porter, the Utah State Fire Marshal, as saying, “The biggest problem is just if they’re slightly damaged, there’s a small rip, they don’t get the elevation, they can still come down while the flame is still going in there.”

These incendiary devices are sometimes released by the hundreds at weddings or in celebration of the Chinese New Year.

More information from the article:

During the wedding rehearsal for former BYU and current NBA basketball player Jimmer Fredette last May, hundreds of lanterns were released into the Denver sky. One of those lanterns landed in a neighbor’s yard and lit a tree on fire. Fortunately, it didn’t do too much damage.

Last summer, Porter said a wildland fire in St. George was also started as a result of a sky lantern.

Links to information about a few fires that have been caused by these devices: here, here, and here.

Los Angeles: law firm has Wild Land Fire Litigation Practice Group

I guess there should be no surprise that a law firm has a “Wild Land Fire Litigation Practice Group”. In our litigious society there are probably lawyers that specialize in every conceivable niche. The Murchison and Cummings law firm in Los Angeles has such a group chaired by Friedrich W. Seitz. They are representing the Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative in defending them against the numerous lawsuits that have been filed relating to the September 2011 fire in Bastrop County, Texas that burned 34,000 acres and destroyed 1,600 homes. In an effort to try to get in on the action, a law firm in Texas created a web site in order to recruit clients to sue Bluebonnet for another fire in Bastrop County, the Wilderness Ridge fire, which burned 26 homes, 20 businesses, and 1,491 acres in Bastrop County, Texas in February, 2009.

Murchison and Cummings has defended Southern California Edison and Breitburn Energy Partners against litigation arising out of wild land fires for many years.

California incident management teams reunion

CA IMT reunion, 2013

This could be big. All of the past and present members of the Type 1 and Type 2 incident management teams in California are being invited to a reunion. It is the first time this has been attempted. I doubt if anyone knows how many people have been on all of those teams over the last, say, 20 years, but with five very large Type 1 IMTs, and quite a few Type 2 IMTs, we’re probably talking about thousands of people. Of course not all will attend, but they have a large base for possible attendees.

Below is an excerpt from the announcement. Clicking HERE will download Word document, and HERE is the registration form.

…The federal California Incident Management Teams Reunion 2013 is the first ever event to gather the past and present members of the Type 1 and Type 2 fire teams of Region 5 at the amazing Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno, Nevada, where team members and guests can relax and visit.  Each day will feature special meals, exhibits and guest speakers with ample time to connect with colleagues and lifelong friends. Headed by the steering committee of Denny Bungarz, Charlie Gripp, Sid Nobles, and Jim Hanrahan, the reunion has the support of ICs Tom Hutchinson, Dave Kohut, Jack Lee, Jerry McGowan, Jeanne Pincha-Tully and Ron Raley.


Is prescribed fire in chaparral “irrelevant”?

Prescribed fire near Pine Valley, California, 1987
Prescribed fire in chaparral, near Pine Valley, California, 1987. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Some of the opinions of Jon Keeley, a fire ecologist with the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, are again in the news. A web site called OurAmazingPlanet has quoted him in a lengthy article about prescribed fire, titled “Fighting Fires: You’re Doing It Wrong”. While admitting that prescribed fire in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park “is extremely necessary”, he goes on to say:

In most of Southern California, [prescribed fire] is completely irrelevant. There is overwhelming evidence we’ve never come anywhere close to excluding fire on this landscape [through prescribed fire].

Mr. Keeley believes that manipulating the vegetation in chaparral-covered areas by masticating and prescribed fire, replaces the native vegetation with invasive species like cheatgrass. He thinks that instead, we should concentrate on planning and reduce the number of people that are put at risk.

This is not the first time Wildfire Today has written about Mr. Keeley’s opinions. In 2009 we covered his research that indicates it is unlikely that changing the age class of chaparral can prevent large fires. The details are in his papers HERE and HERE, and in a brief article by John McKinney HERE.

Conventional wisdom was that younger chaparral, less than 20 years old, had fewer tons-per-acre of vegetation than older stands, and also had a much different live/dead ratio, with fewer dead stems and plants. Less flammable fuels (higher green content with higher fuel moistures) meant fires would spread more slowly and should be easier to suppress.

Totally preventing or excluding fires in chaparral will never be feasible, but… it is hard for me to give up the idea that creating a mosaic of chaparral age classes does not have a significant effect on fire size and resistance to control.