USA – From raging wildfires tearing across California to sudden blazes that were quickly extinguished, arson is suspected in several high-profile and less-publicized fires this year.
California’s law enforcement agencies have reported a 20 percent increase in the number of arson cases in the past five years. And of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California history, at least three were set by arsonists.
The suspected arsonists in the most recent cases offer insight into a crime that researchers and experts describe as enigmatic, and distinct from other property crimes.
Forrest Clark, a middle-aged man who appears to have a bent for conspiracies, is suspected of setting the Holy Fire in Orange County earlier this month, which has claimed almost 23,000 acres and 18 structures and remains uncontained.
Brandon McGlover, a young man whose family displayed shock when he was charged, allegedly set nine fires in and around the Mount San Jacinto State Park in July. The largest of the fires McGlover allegedly set, the Cranston Fire, burned 13,000 acres and left mountain communities hobbled.
In a matter of weeks the two fires have added nearly 36,000 acres to the growing account of damage due to arson in California.
More: Three Southern California wildland arson suspects in two weeks. Here’s how common arson is in the state
More: Cranston Fire: Suspect Brandon N. McGlover pleads not guilty to 15 counts of arson; DA alleges he set nine separate fires
A third fire caused by arson this summer near Desert Hot Springs was quickly extinguished, and police were able to identify a man who admitted to setting the fires.
Local examples show arson as a repeat offense for some and as a new crime in a string of run-ins with the law for others. Some of the arson fires set recently stemmed from threats made verbally and rants shared digitally.
Some suspects were known to neighbors and law enforcement as troublemakers, while others led quiet lives with little warning of the crimes they would allegedly commit.
While investigations are still unfolding, a look at four recent arson incidents can shed some light on this unpredictable threat to property and safety.
More: After Oasis of Mara fire in Joshua Tree National Park, man arrested on suspicion of arson
More: Highways closed by Cranston Fire reopen; Desert Hot Springs man accused of starting unrelated brush fire
Around 10 p.m. on March 26, Myles Landry, a law enforcement ranger for the National Park Service, observed three fires burning near the Oasis Visitors Center at the north entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, according to court documents.
Landry and two of his colleagues hurried to clear the area and contain the blaze. While Landry cleared brush from the path of the oncoming fire, he spotted the suspect, George Graham, watching the fire near the Oasis of Mara Nature Trail.
“I recognized Graham immediately,” Landry said in court filings, “because Graham had been trespassing in the nearby NPS headquarters parking lot the day before, taking photographs of patrol vehicles.”
Graham had been lurking around the staff parking lot at about 5 p.m. the day before. Landry said he was immediately suspicious of the story Graham provided.
“I asked him why he had been trespassing,” Landry said. “He told me he had been taking pictures because he liked emergency vehicles.”
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s office ran Graham’s criminal background and found that he was on parole for a prior arson conviction in 2015. Graham was issued a citation for trespassing and released.
The next night the blaze ultimately burned two and a half acres and Graham was arrested at the scene.
According to court documents, Graham had called 911 to report the fire and allegedly admitted to sheriff’s deputies that he had lit it with a lighter. Deputies later found the lighter near Graham’s shoe prints, where he had presumably thrown it into the brush.
Carrie Bilbao, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, said arsonists are frequently repeat offenders, giving investigators a chance to track them.
“Starting fires at certain times of the day and at certain locations, arsonists develop patterns,” Bilbao said. “They’ll start small and they’ll grow. On average they start something like 30 fires before they really take hold.”
Ed Nordskog, an arson investigator for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department with more than two decades of experience, said it takes three fire events for a person to be considered a serial arsonist, but they are rare.
“The majority of arson cases are people who are mad at their girlfriend or their former employer,” Nordskog said.
According to data collected by the FBI, arson is a crime committed by men four times as often as women.
“In most cases, people are only arrested for arson once and most of their fires are small events. The only thing that makes the fire big is the weather,” Nordskog said.
Citing Graham’s previous arson conviction for a fire in Rancho Cucamonga, prosecutors established he had a history of firesetting. Graham pleaded guilty and faces time in prison and a fee of at least $250,000, depending on the damage assessment.
In some cases, arson is a new type of crime for someone with a history of trouble with the law.
On August 3, John Fitzgerald Tatum, 54, was arrested for allegedly starting a brushfire in Desert Hot Springs, a town just southwest of Joshua Tree National Park.
The fire broke out around 8 p.m. and Tatum was caught after witnesses saw him fleeing the scene. According to Sgt. Christopher Saucier of Desert Hot Springs Police Department, Tatum was allegedly holding a lighter and admitted to starting the fire, when he was arrested.
“He did not require any medical or mental health treatment at the time we arrested him,” Saucier said.
Tatum has previously been convicted of grand theft, fraudulent use of telecommunication equipment, domestic battery, and several vehicle code violations spanning more than two decades. Several of the convictions were compounded by Tatum’s repeated failure to appear in court.
While he has no criminal history of firesetting, Tatum now faces two charges of arson and is due in court August 17.
According to Dr. John DeHaan, a fire forensic scientist and arson investigator of more than 45 years, proving a fire was set maliciously and intentionally is difficult and makes arson one of the most challenging crimes to prosecute.
Even when investigators can show a fire was intentional, historically it’s been difficult to identify when an act of arson was meant to target one person or when it concerns a specific grievance. But newer research into arson motivation shows the crime frequently does target specific individuals for specific grievances.
“In the past, investigators believed most fires were set to profit off of an insurance claim or to clear property for development,” DeHaan said. “Now, we know that the largest percentage of fires are set out of anger and retaliation. If an arsonist is angry about where you park your car, torching it is a good way to get rid of it.”
Investigators haven’t said whether they believe Graham and Tatum committed arson out of anger or retaliation, but charges filed against Forrest Clark, the suspect in the Holy Fire, allege that he threatened a neighbor referred to as “Frank R.” before igniting the blaze.
Clark was arrested the day after the fire started. By then the Holy Fire had consumed all the cabins in his community except for his.
Photos and reports surfaced of a bizarre exchange Clark had with law enforcement officers on the day of his arrest, where he shouted at the officers incoherently and removed all his clothes.
A Facebook page that appears to be Clark’s is full of religious material and conspiracy theories. Some of the posts repeat tenets of a recently popularized theory called QAnon that claims a deep state conspiracy facilitates child sex trafficking. Other posts rant about what seems to have been an ongoing dispute with a neighbor who he said was making and dealing drugs to gangs. Other posts make claims about seeing secret Hebrew letters in his cookies, and that dental x-rays led to skin cancer.
Clark is facing one charge of making a threat in connection with the Holy Fire. Carrie Braun of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said Clark threatened the neighbor verbally.
Clark’s arraignment has been delayed twice. During an Aug. 10 court appearance, Clark made nonsensical comments and asked to pay his $1 million dollar bail immediately. The judge eventually called off the hearing and rescheduled it for Aug. 17.
The arraignment had been delayed the previous day because Clark refused to come out of his cell, Braun said.
The posts on his Facebook and his unusual behavior in court might be symptoms of illness, but the Orange County Health Care Agency has a policy against disclosing if they are treating inmates for mental health issues.
Dr. Gregory Leong, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, said mental illness increases the risk of arson, but it increases the risk of other behaviors too.
“Having a mental illness is a risk factor, but it’s not a simple linear relationship,” Leong said. “When a person has active psychotic symptoms, it increases their risk for acting inappropriately. The factor that most increases your risk of acting violently, however, is intoxication.”
According to Leong, mental health and drug screening are often important factors in arson cases.
“That’s why we have a trial,” Leong said.
Few social media posts exist for Brandon McGlover, the suspect charged with fifteen counts of arson for setting nine different fires in Riverside County just two weeks before Clark allegedly set the Holy Fire.
One of the nine fires allegedly set by McGlover took over the Mount San Jacinto State Park, dubbed the Cranston Fire, and consumed more than 13,000 acres and terrorized the mountain communities of Idyllwild and Pinyon Pines for more than a week.
McGlover, 32 of Temecula, has no criminal history apart from a handful of speeding violations. What appears to be his Facebook account lacks a profile picture and has no public information.
Several posts he made on other people’s accounts show he used Facebook to trade polite greetings and words of encouragement with friends and family, but did so sparingly.
McGlover was arrested on July 25 around 1 p.m. only hours after the Cranston Fire erupted. Cal Fire investigators arrested McGlover near Hemet with the help of Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
The Riverside County District Attorney’s office has not revealed what evidence led to McGlover’s arrest, citing a department policy not to discuss pending cases.
McGlover was calm and silent at his first court appearance, his attorney entered a not guilty plea as his family looked on in shock.
After McGlover’s arraignment, from the steps of the courthouse, his attorney offered a conciliatory message.
“On behalf of Brandon and his family our thoughts and prayers are with those that are fighting these fires and the families that have been affected by them,” his attorney said. “If these fires were intentionally set we hope that that person is found so that they can’t do it again.”
McGlover is due in court for his preliminary hearing on September 25.
Joe Seskniak, of the Arizona Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators, trains fire investigators to find and report evidence of arson for public and private agencies.
“Fire is destructive, but evidence is left behind,” Sesniak said. “The investigator has to identify where the fire started. Once we’ve figured out where the origin is, we’re looking for ignition sources.”
Sesniak said he’s seen evidence of fires started by cigarettes, sparks from cars, a malfunctioning mechanical gate, power lines, and all sorts of arson ignition devices.
“Arson is often technically simple,” Sesniak said. “I’ve seen a delay device made of a burning cigarette placed on top of an open book of matches.”
In many cases, the evidence for wildland fire arson is not so clear. DeHaan said wildland arson investigations are made difficult by how large and complex wildfire ecosystems can be.
“Fires don’t always move the way your intuition suggests they do,” DeHaan said. “With wildland fires you have irregular fuel loads where leaves and needles collect in certain areas. And wind is a whole other challenge. The aerodynamics are very different from region to region.”
As fire science advances and agencies better understand arson, DeHaan said wildland fire investigation is becoming more comprehensive and accurate.
“Wildland fire investigation is now making the same transition that structure fire did 20 years ago,” DeHaan said, as new tools and methods become routine during wildland arson investigations, leading to better evidence for an eventual prosecution.
“Science is teaching investigators to ask the ‘what if’ questions,” he said. For example: “What if the fuel is drier here because of sun exposure. They have to understand the science to ensure they’re documenting the indicators showing the direction the fire spread in a way that can be cited years later when cases reach the courts.”
While a full investigation and prosecution can still take years, in the recent string of local arson incidents the arrests have come quickly.
Graham and Fitzgerald were arrested at the scenes of their alleged arson fires soon after they were ignited. McGlover was arrested just hours after the public was informed the Cranston Fire had taken hold. And Clark was arrested less than 24 hours after the Holy Fire broke out.
In some cases, charges were filed before the fires were extinguished.
Graham has entered a guilty plea, but it will likely take months or years to see what cases will be made against the others.
The day of McGlover’s arraignment, Cal Fire posted that they were “seeking the public’s help with any information regarding a series of fires on July 25, 2018 in Southwest Riverside County. Anyone with information is urged to contact the Arson Hotline.”
While the Cranston Fire still raged on the mountains in the distance, John Hall, a spokesperson for the Riverside District Attorney, said McGlover was facing charges for a crime that was still occuring.
“This is an unusual case because we’re here at the arraignment of a defendant and the crime is still ongoing,” Hall said. “We’re still fighting the fire.”