California Arson String

©1997 Kelly Andersson
Contributing Editor

NOTE: This article ran in 1997 in WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER Magazine.

Authorities in late September 1997 were searching for a trio of suspected arsonists in connection with a string of fires in Southern California. The City Creek Fire was apparently torched off by three people in a pickup along Highway 330 north of Highland. Farther south, the Keen Fire, also on the San Bernardino National Forest, was ignited after City Creek got going. The Poppet Fire, on the Riverside Ranger Unit south of Banning, took off after that. Two other smaller fires -- the Wild and the Junction -- were ignited in the area during the same period. Resources from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the California Department of Forestry (CDF), Riverside County, San Bernardino County, and local urban fire departments were stretched to keep up with the fires, which cropped up one after another over an hour's period -- about the time it takes to drive from the first ignition point to the last.

The City Creek Fire was ignited about 1:30 p.m. on September 23, and raced from about 3000 feet elevation upslope to almost 5000 feet. The flashy fuels along the highway allowed the fire to make a hot run up through brush and grass into the mixed conifer fuels at the top.

"It made a pretty hot initial run," said Russ Johnson, forest fire management officer for the San Bernardino National Forest. "The aircraft and equipment were able to hold it till the temperatures moderated toward the end of the day. Through the canyon in the bottom is a major highway that leads to Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, and Running Springs. These are major resort communities, so we had some substantial road closures. We had engines -- five strike teams with a variety of types and agencies -- but the fire was only partially accessible at the very lower end adjacent to the highway. The rest was an air and hand show."

Air resources included heavy helicopters, medium helicopters, and ten air tankers. Both heavy helicopters ran with fixed tanks; one of the medium helicopters ran a bucket out of Lake Hemet -- about a 30-second turnaround. "We were able to to hold the head, and we just pounded it with aircraft," Johnson added. "We had probably five hours of continuous air drops. That saved our bacon, because we had other commitments."

Those other commitments included the Poppet Fire, about three miles south of Banning, and the Keen Fire.

"We were working on the City Creek Fire when were were called out on the Keen," says Jim Tippler, who flies a Sikorksy S-64 for Erickson Air-Crane. "Between those two fires, I think we put out about 63,000 gallons." The Keen Fire was torched off after resources were committed to City Creek. Law enforcement agencies handled road closures and remained on standby for the possibility of evacuations. "We were ready to initiate evacuation if the Keen Fire hit the trigger point," Johnson said. "But we never got close."

Tippler said the Keen Fire was close to their water source at Lake Hemet, so they were able to make four dozen or so drops with the fixed-tank Air-Crane. "We were running a coverage level of 4 on this fire because of all the people on the ground," he said. "We had a turnaround of about two minutes and made 45 or 50 drops in about 3-1/2 hours." Tippler says the fire really raced up the brushy slopes. "The way the winds were blowing, the fire was headed southwest in the direction of Lake Hemet. It was thick scrub oak up on top, with just sparse grass on the ground. There was a lot of smoke, and it was really leaning over with the winds as they came up. East winds are unusual around there, and the hurricane didn't help, but I guess it kept the fire going away from Idyllwild. Whoever it was knew what he was doing; he set it on the right side of the road with the wind."

Norm Walker, IC on the Keen Fire, said the Wild Fire was torched off about a mile north of Mountain Center shortly after the Keen took off. "They threw the device out on the east side of the road," he said. "That could have been a disastrous fire, but the east wind helped us on that one. The second fire ignited within minutes -- before I even got to the first one. I had to divert the tankers from the Keen Fire to the Wild Fire. We'd already lost the Keen heading up the hill."

The fire was choked off at about 125 acres, but not before it burned some owl habitat and threatened a mobile home park about 3/4 mile from the fire. "That park caused us to go into unified command with the Riverside County Fire Department," said Walker. "The two agencies cooperated in picking it up and getting a contingency plan in place for evacuation. The fire flattened out up on top and got into a meadow, which allowed us to pick it up with retardant and a one-blade dozer line."

By Sept. 25, scattered rainstorms had dampened most of the fire activity, and turned the community's worries from wildfire to landslides. "Hurricane Nora has started to bite us," said Johnson that afternoon. "We were on the edge of the front with the extreme rains. In between the initial winds and the rain, though, we had three or four hours of pretty interesting fire activity."

Walker said fire behavior in the Banning Pass, about 10 air miles north of the Keen, was a headache for CDF. "They had two starts there that drove them nuts," he said.


By the time the rains had moved through, the San Bernardino communities' worries had shifted from arson-sparked wildfires to the resultant threat of landslides. "The intensity of precipitation was pretty scattered," said Johnson. "The brush won't absorb much of it, and if we get dry again with a couple days of Santa Ana conditions, we could be chasing fires again. This area does not handle a lot of water over a short period of time very well. The steep areas with grass and light brush were burned off slick just above the communities. The vegetation cover here is a product of many years of frequent fires, and when it burns it doesn't burn very hot, but it burns very quickly. With this kind of moisture, we expect some earth movement. Even though it's not moonscaped up there, it's set up for quick saturation. In the mid-1970s we took out probably 20 homes with mudslides after a busy fire season."


Deputy Tony Bowen of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department conducted a helicopter search for the suspects as the fires popped up one after the other. "We tried to chase this guy down," said Bowen. "They were out of the area pretty fast, and we had so many pieces of information coming in, it was hard to figure out at first which direction he was going."

The vehicle -- a two-tone mid-1980s green-and-tan GMC or Chevy pickup -- was seen at least twice near ignition points. Three occupants -- two males and a female -- were seen throwing things from the pickup, and "ignition devices" were recovered.

Bowen was flying an MD500E helicopter out on patrol near Riverside with another deputy when they gave chase. "We saw the first fire and heard them talking on the radio about a possible evacuation. They were talking about the vehicle, so once we got to the area we started looking for it. We were checking the roads up in the hills where they might sit and watch the fire, and we checked the roads that exit off the mountain. We were up about three hours on four fires -- after the one near Lake Hemet, there was another fire over by Sage on the southwest side. It turned out to be just a small grass fire, but we got down there and then Banning went up. There were three directions they could have gone, and we tried to search them all, but it was a big area to cover. We'd get one fire going, and then the next one would go up and we'd be there. We were always one fire behind him, though."

Ron Huxman, special agent on the San Bernardino National Forest, said on Sept. 25 that the investigation was well under way and was being coordinated with other agencies. "No one's in custody yet, but we're doing okay on the investigation. This was one of the first times where the Forest Service asked the public for information on an arson, and we were barraged with tips. One of them appears very promising."

According to Laura Mark-Bailey, Forest Service central zone special agent, penalties for arson depend on whether it's a state or federal case. "Arson is a felony," she said, "and would be prosecuted in state or federal court, along with any other resulting actions such as homicide or manslaughter or injuries resulting from the fire." She says guidelines for arson penalties run from 5 to 15 years for state offenses, and that a federal conviction would carry a minimum five years in federal prison. Both the Forest Service and the state would pursue recovery of suppression costs.

NOTE: This story is ©1997 Kelly Andersson and may not be reproduced or distributed without written permission.

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