A burning question: Why so few arsonists arrested?

A burning question: Why so few arsonists arrested?

6 December 2006

published by www.venturacountystar.com

by Colleen Cason

Ventura county, CA, USA — Simi Valley fire, October 2003; 108,200 acres burned. Thirty-eight homes destroyed. Cause: under investigation.

Topanga fire, October 2005; 24,175 acres burned. Thirteen structures destroyed. Cause: under investigation.

Now comes the Shekell fire. The blaze, reportedly ignited in two locations Sunday morning, has consumed five homes and blackened 13,600 acres in and around Moorpark. The cause: under investigation, although Ventura County Fire Department officials say they will make an announcement in the near future.

As the Shekell fire — buffeted by near hurricane-force winds — threatened thousands of homes Sunday, I found myself wondering why we seldom hear what or who causes these disasters. They kill innocents, destroy property, put lives of residents and firefighters in jeopardy, and cost the taxpayers multi-, multimillions.

And since as many as 50 percent of wildland fires are caused by humans, why aren’t there more arrests? Why can’t

the public see the faces of the miscreants who start these infernos for their own pleasure?

Arson is the most malicious of crimes because it demonstrates a disregard for all living things. A killer who uses a gun generally targets the objects of his hate. But when a pyromaniac sets a match to dry brush, he doesn’t know where the wind will take it. He can’t predict who will die or whose home he will destroy. Nor does he care.

In fact, the more havoc, the better.

Firebugs don’t sit around with their matchbooks waiting for a calm day to light a hibachi. “They wait for the worst wind conditions to cause mass destruction,” said Simi Valley Councilman Glen Becerra, who was passionate that the city offer a reward for information leading to the arrest of a suspect in the Simi Valley fire of ’03.

Despite the arson arrest in late October of Raymond Lee Oyler in a Riverside County blaze that killed five firefighters, statistics show that pyros usually get away with their crimes. Only 14 percent are ever prosecuted; only 2 percent end up in the slammer.

Mary Peace, a senior deputy district attorney who prosecutes arson cases in Ventura County, believes that those statistics are a bit bleak.

She points to the conviction of Francisco Ortiz, who ignited a blaze in the Simi Valley hills while fire-spotter helicopters were in the sky over the Topanga blaze of 2005. Ortiz committed suicide in the Ventura County Jail earlier this year.

The Ranch fire of 1999 was ignited by two then-teenage idiots. They tried to blow up a mailbox in a 70 mph wind and set off a fire that destroyed a home.

Investigators surely have the fire in their bellies. But arson is tough to solve because the crime scene is almost always disturbed. Imagine committing an act where aid workers destroy the evidence. That’s what happens when firefighters arrive on the scene with boots and hoses to stop the blaze’s onslaught.

This year alone, California taxpayers footed the $73.5 million bill to extinguish the stubborn Day fire in the Upper Ojai and Los Padres National Forest. We need to consider whether more resources should go into investigation. That could prevent future fires by catching serial arsonists sooner.

We need to spend enough on finding the criminals to make sure that arsonists are toast.

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