Federal officials have confirmed the cause of last summer’s Whittier fire — a vehicle being driven through high, dry grass above Camp Whittier.
That was last July 8 on a hillside across Highway 154 from Cachuma Lake. The fire burned into the fall, scorching nearly 19,000 acres, with more than $38 million in control and contain costs.
The fire devastated the Outdoor School and Rancho Alegre Boy Scout Camp area, with most of the structures being burned down. Nearby Camp Whittier and the Circle V Ranch Camp were also wiped out.
Soon after the wildfire flared up, responders made a last-second rescue of children and adult counselors trapped at the Circle V Ranch Camp, making this a tragedy that could have been far worse.
And that may have changed officials’ attitudes about the people responsible for starting the fire. It was apparently juveniles in the vehicle that sparked the blaze, and although no criminal charges have been filed, the investigation is continuing.
Criminal charges would not be unusual in such cases. California law provides for prison time and hefty fines for starting a wildfire, and the severity of the charges depends on the severity of the fire, and what kinds of damage it inflicts.
For example, a 29-year-old man was sentenced to 13 months in prison and slapped with a bill for $61 million in restitution damages for starting what is called the Cedar fire in Kern County two years ago.
The problem in the Cedar fire was similar to what occurred in the Whittier event — a car exhaust system making contact with dry grasses, leaving a trail of small fires that coalesced into a monster.
No one is likely to see the $61 million paid out in restitution, in part because in similar recent cases the federal government has recovered only about $1.5 million from people guilty of starting fires. But the threat of prison time should make a person take notice.
The point is that there are consequences beyond the damage inflicted by wildfires. The close call for campers escaping from the wall of Whittier flames could have gone the other way, and instead of being responsible for just fire damages, there could have been multiple fatalities.
Wildfires are the current California plague. Last year was the worst in the state’s history, with the Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties ending up as the biggest ever in California. And because we just can’t seem to shake the litany of drought episodes, wildfire seasons are likely to get longer and cause much greater damage than in the past.
All because such fires are so painfully easy to get started, then grow into property-destroying infernos.
One of California’s top-five wildfires in terms of acres burned was started by two workmen on a ranch near Los Olivos on July 4, 2007. Sparks from their metal-grinding tool flew into dry grass, quickly turning into the Zaca Fire, which burned 240,000 acres, injured 43 people and caused nearly $120 million in damages. The two local men were charged with felonies, but the charges were later dropped.
Yes, there definitely are personal consequences for starting or being complicit in the starting of a wildfire, a fact we should all keep in mind, because so many wildfires are the direct result of thoughtless behavior and/or disregard for the safety of others. Something as seemingly benign as tossing a lit cigarette butt out your car window could conceivably land you in prison.
Please be careful, for all our sakes.