Fires Cost Over $2.4 Million to Extinguish
SAN JOSE – LAWFUEL – The Law News Network – United States Attorney Kevin V. Ryan announced that Craig Matthew Underwood pleaded guilty today to three counts of arson while employed as a firefighter by the U.S. Forest Service. Mr. Underwood admitted to intentionally setting three fires in Los Padres National Forest in the summer of 2004. The three fires were named the Memorial Fire, the Slide Fire, and Fred’s Fire, and occurred on July 28, 2004, August 14, 2004, and September 22, 2004, respectively. This guilty plea is the result of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General.
In pleading guilty, Mr. Underwood, 32 of Green field, California, admitted to the following:
Mr Underwood started the first fire on July 28, 2004 with a cigarette lighter. He made a campfire ring in an attempt to make it look like the fire was an “escaped” campfire. Prior to starting the fire, Mr. Underwood removed his boots and put on heavy woolen socks to keep from leaving identifiable foot prints. The fire burned timber, underbrush, and grass, and the Forest Service calculated that it cost $177,506 to extinguish the fire.
The second fire was started 17 days later, on August 14, 2004. With this fire, Mr Underwood ignited four different sites in an unsuccessful effort to create a fires that would merge into a single fire and climb a ridge, traveling quickly. But because of high humidity and low wind conditions at the time, all four fires went out by themselves after Mr Underwood left the area. The Forest Service responded to the fire, but no suppression efforts were necessary. The Forest Service has calculated that it cost $7,164 to respond.
Mr. Underwood admitted that he started the third, and by far the biggest, fire 39 days later, on September 22, 2004. He started the fire near a picnic ground called the Arroyo Seco Day Use Area . It took the Forest Service and other firefighting agencies four days to extinguish it. It burned approximately 768 acres, and cost $2.24 million to extinguish. Unlike the first two fires, the Forest Service incurred additional land rehabilitation costs after the fire was extinguished. These mostly involved repair efforts to creek banks to keep them from overflowing and flooding due to the expected increased run off caused by the fire.
No one was injured in any of the three fires.
The investigation began after authorities began investigating the Memorial fire. After the August 14, 2004, fire a court-authorized global positioning tracker was placed on Mr. Underwood’s truck and Mr. Underwood’s residence was placed under surveillance.
Mr. Underwood was arrested on November 23, 2004, and was indicted by a federal grand jury on December 16, 2004. He was charged with three counts of setting fires to U.S. lands in violation of Title 18, United States Code, section 1855. Under the plea agreement, Mr. Underwood pleaded guilty to all counts.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, Mr. Underwood will face stiffer sentencing guidelines based on an abuse of the trust placed in him as a firefighter. The sentencing of Mr. Underwood is scheduled for May 22 at 1:30 p.m. before Judge James Ware in San Jose. The maximum statutory penalty for each count of arson in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1855 is five years imprisonment, and a fine of $250,000, plus restitution. However, any sentence following conviction would be imposed by the court after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.
Gary G. Fry is the Assistant U.S. Attorney who is prosecuting the case with the assistance of Legal Technician Tracey Andersen. The prosecution is the result of a four month investigation by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General.