While authorities often issues warnings that people can be heavily fined, charged with fire suppression costs and even convicted and jailed for accidentally starting wildfires, firefighters and prosecutors say the culprits behind human-caused wildfires in the local area are rarely caught and punished.
However, even in cases in which officials appear to have a good idea who the culprit was, evidence suggests those people do not often face criminal prosecution.
“In Santa Cruz County I can’t think of somebody that was criminally charged and went to jail,” said Tubac Fire District’s Mark South, who has worked as a firefighter and incident commander in the county and across the West since 1979.
According to Arizona’s criminal code, people who recklessly cause a fire that results in damage to wildlands, structures and other property can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor. A wildland fire started with criminal negligence is a Class 2 misdemeanor under state law. People convicted of these violations may also be held liable for the investigative and emergency response costs.
Under the Code of Federal Regulations, it is prohibited to cause and fail to maintain control of a fire in National Forest lands without permission, and the Coronado National Forest routinely warns that violations of fire restrictions on federal lands are punishable as a Class B misdemeanor that carries a fine of not more than $5,000, imprisonment for not more than six months, or both.
While the people who start many wildfires are simply never known or found, numerous stories published in recent years in the Nogales International about fires in and around Eastern Santa Cruz County have included comments from authorities suggesting a known or suspected culprit.
A report about a 725-acre human-caused fire in the Elgin-Canelo area in early 2011 cited a former batallion chief at the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District as saying it was believed to have started on private property by someone who was “either welding or cutting metal.” An acre-and-a-half fire near Elgin on Jan. 28, 2012 was also said to have been caused by someone welding, while a six-acre fire earlier that month near Mowry was reported by hunters whose campfire had “jumped” into nearby grass, authorities said.
Four wildfires in the area of Eastern Santa Cruz County between 2011 and 2013 were suspected to have been started by people who were target shooting, including the Duke Fire in 2011, the Rosemont Fire in 2012, and the Cave and Hog fires in 2013. In May 2015, Nogales Suburban and Patagonia Volunteer Fire and Rescue responded to a six-acre blaze off Circulo Montana near Patagonia Lake that was reportedly started by someone who was welding, and a blaze that burned more than 1,000 acres of grasslands near Elgin on June 6, 2016 was caused by someone welding on private property, SEFD Chief Joseph DeWolf said at the time.
During the most recent fire season, the Sawmill Fire, which scorched almost 47,000 acres just north of the Santa Cruz County line in April, caused widespread evacuations and cost more than $7 million to extinguish, was admittedly started by an off-duty Border Patrol agent who has yet to be charged. In the case of the human-caused Flying R Fire, which burned more than 2,000 acres in the Patagonia Mountains in June, the identity of the person suspected of starting the blaze has been widely rumored in the community, but Chief Ike Isakson of Patagonia Volunteer Fire and Rescue said he could not confirm the cause of the fire or if the person was involved.
Depending on where a fire burns, investigations are conducted by local or state law enforcement or federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. DeWolf said fire departments will help determine whether the fire was caused by humans or lightning and pass along any clues – like descriptions of people fleeing the scene. But the decision to recommend charges ultimately lies with those outside agencies.
“A lot of times we never hear what really happens, the final outcome,” said South, of the Tubac Fire District.
County Attorney George Silva said that if an investigating agency brought a case to his office and there was enough evidence to secure a prosecution, he would take the case. “We just have never had anybody bring an investigation like that to us,” he said.
Silva, who has been the county’s top prosecutor for 12 years, said he imagined most cases go to the state Attorney General’s Office, since many fires occur on state land. However, a spokeswoman responding to a public records request said that in the last five years, the AG’s Office did not file any cases in Santa Cruz County for arson, reckless burning or burning of wildlands.
Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the Coronado National Forest, said Forest Service law enforcement investigates all human-caused fires on CNF land and reports crimes to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which determines whether to press charges. She said a Santa Cruz County resident was charged with a misdemeanor and a civil violation for starting an 1,800-acre fire while grinding metal during red flag fire conditions in 2011. Schewel said the Hog and Duke fires were of undetermined origin, the shooter who reported the Cave Fire was charged with a misdemeanor citation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute a juvenile who accidentally started the Rosemont Fire while shooting with his family.
The Flying R Fire is still under investigation, she said.
A fine line
Isakson, who has worked as a firefighter in Patagonia for about 30 years, estimated that the culprit behind human-caused fires is only identified 10 percent of the time.
When people are caught, he, DeWolf and South said, it is usually because they turned themselves in after reporting that they accidentally started a wildfire.
Such was the case with the June 6, 2016 grassland fire on private property near Elgin. A man admitted the fire began after he was welding in a closed garage, but DeWolf said his guess is that the four-to-six property owners impacted by the blaze declined to press charges.
“If somebody sticks around enough to say, ‘I accidentally started this and what can I do, how can I help?’ that’s different than somebody even accidentally starting something and fleeing. To me, then that’s criminal,” DeWolf said.
Asked to provide an example of a legitimate accident versus reckless behavior, DeWolf compared someone starting a fire after building a campfire during Stage 2 fire restrictions to when “grandma pulls over to take a picture of an antelope and her (car’s) catalytic converter starts the grass on fire.”
Isakson juxtaposed the examples of someone who starts a fire while mowing versus someone welding in dry grass and weather.
“Is that really an accident? It’s an accident waiting to happen, is what it is,” he said.
If a case makes it to court, South said, judging whether someone should be held criminally responsible for starting a fire is based on “a fine line that the jury or the courts decide,” as well as how the defendant pleads.
South and Silva noted that when fires are started by undocumented border-crossers, who ignited them by accident or as an intentional distraction or call for help, they are rarely found and prosecuted. South said he recently fought a fire west of Three Points, Ariz. started by a dehydrated migrant that cost $1 million to put out.
“How do you charge an illegal coming across with those fees? It’s not going to happen,” he said.
But in cases in which the fire-starter is known and can be made an example of, doesn’t a criminal conviction have a deterrent effect?
South said the Forest Service often does fine people for reckless behavior.
“They don’t just say OK, good job, put it out, walk away. They usually cite them,” he said.