Lawmakers push to reduce threat of wildfires

Lawmakers push to reduce threat of wildfires

19 April 2009

published by

USA — As a federal prosecutor,Adam Schiff struggled to tie an accused arsonist to a string of fires in California’sSan Bernardino National Forest.

But then authorities stumbled across a file showing the man had set fires using the same modus operandi years earlier. Once the accused arsonist was confronted with the evidence, he pleaded guilty.

Today, Schiff, a Democratic congressman from California, uses the story to make the case for legislation to set up a national system for tracking convicted arsonists, an arsonist version of the sex offender registry.

Had such a system been in place when Schiff worked on the arson case – providing names, addresses, fingerprints and photographs of arsonists and their methods for starting fires – “we may have been able to stop him before he committed several later fires,” the congressman said.

With another fire season looming, Schiff is making a push to pass the Managing Arson Through Criminal History, or MATCH Act.

The bill is one of a spate of measures aimed at reducing the threat of wildfires.

The economic stimulus bill included $515 million to reduce wildfire risks, much of it going to provide jobs clearing brush and thinning forests. The House recently approved – and the Senate is expected to take up soon – the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act, to create a fund to cover the escalating cost of fighting wildfires. And Sen.Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat., is renewing her effort to pass bills that would increase federal assistance to disaster victims and offer federal grants to nudge fire-prone communities to take measures to reduce fire risks.

The flurry of legislation comes as federal firefighting costs have grown and concerns about wildfires have increased because of drought and global warming. Wildfires burned 5.3 million acres last year.

The arson legislation gained new interest following a recent jury’s recommendation of the death sentence for Raymond Lee Oyler for setting a fire in 2006 that killed five firefighters, destroyed 34 homes and burned more than 40,000 acres. Much of that inland Southern California area is represented by Rep.Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican and chief sponsor of the arson registry bill.

The legislation would require convicted arsonists – many of whom are repeat offenders – to report to authorities where they live, work and attend school. An arsonist would be required to register five years for one offense, 10 years for two and for life for three or more offenses.

The arsonists’ registry would be available only to investigators.

California, under 1984 legislation, established an arsonist registry, with 3,500 names. But Burbank Fire Chief Tracy Pansini called the state registry “toothless.”

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