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Cause a Forest Fire, Go to Jail

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

If you live in Colorado, you're probably smelling a lot of smoke right now. A huge wildfire burning in Canada and Alaska, covering more than 2-million acres, has spread smoke as far south as Colorado.

With the hot dry conditions of summer, even a small spark can become a huge fire. If you caused a wildfire or a forest fire, you may end up in jail.

Criminal Liability for Starting a Forest Fire

Since wildfires can cause millions of dollars in damage and put lives at risk, states and the federal government have been zealous about prosecuting people who started the fires, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Forest Fire Laws in California

In California, two laborers accidentally caused Zaca fire in 2007. The fire was caused by a spark from their equipment while they were trying to fix a broken pipe. By the time the fire was extinguished, it burned over 240,000 acres, destroyed 1 building, injured 43 people, and caused over $118 million dollars in damage.

The two laborers were charged with felony arson, despite the fire being an accident. California law states, "A person is guilty of unlawfully causing a fire when he recklessly sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned any structure, forest land, or property." If the fire had caused great bodily injury, the men could have been sentenced to a maximum of six years in prison and be required to reimburse the cost of the fire.

Other States

Most other states have similar laws punishing arson in general or causing a forest fire specifically.

In Washington, it is illegal to negligently allow fire started on your own property to spread onto another person's property. It is also illegal to start a campfire and then fail to extinguish it when you leave.

In Texas, recklessly starting a fire is a state jail felony. However, if someone was hurt or killed by the fire, then the crime is a third degree felony punishable by a minimum of 2 years and a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Be careful with your campfires and barbeques this year. With the drought in California and high temperatures throughout the country, a small fire can soon become a catastrophe, and you could find yourself facing criminal arson charges. If you are charged with arson, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney for help.

Related Resources:

  • Browse Criminal Defense Lawyers by Location (FindLaw's Lawyer Directory)
  • Ore. Woman Set Forest Fire to Help 'Bored Firefighter Friends' (FindLaw's Legally Weird)
  • Raymond Oyler, Arsonist, Gets Death Penalty for Setting Forest Fire? (FindLaw's Blotter)
  • California Insurers Brace For Fire Damage Claims (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
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