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California Arson Laws

Last updated 11/14/2019

With its many national parks, campgrounds and rural areas, California is always near the top of vacation lists. However, many of these attractions also make California susceptible to dangerous wildfires, some of which are the result of a deliberate act. One of the more notorious arsonists in California was actually a chief arson investigator who had even written a novel about a firefighter arsonist. He was convicted on arson charges related to several fires he had set, some of which were started with simple incendiary devices involving cigarettes and matches.

California has a few different arson-related crimes and penalties which vary depending on one's intent and whether harm was caused to individuals or certain types of property. For basic arson to apply, a prosecutor must prove that a defendant:

  • Acted willfully and maliciously;
  • Set fire or burned or caused to be burned;
  • Any structure, forest land or property.

For aggravated arson to apply, a defendant must act with the specific intent to cause injury or property damage and either:

  • Have a previous conviction of arson within the past 10 years; or
  • Cause damage and losses in excess of $6,500,000.

Even if the crimes of arson or aggravated arson don't apply, a person can still be held criminally liable for unlawfully causing a fire if he or she recklessly sets fire to any structure, forest land or property.

California Arson Laws at a Glance

The chart below contains specific references to arson laws in California.

  • Cal. Penal Code Section 451 (arson)
  • Cal. Penal Code Section 451.5 (aggravated arson)
  • Cal. Penal Code Section 452 (unlawfully causing a fire)
  • Cal. Penal Code Section 453 (possessing, manufacturing or disposing of combustible material in preparation for an arson)
  • Cal. Penal Code Section 455 (attempted arson)
  • Cal. Penal Code Section 457.1 (requiring registration for prior arson convictions)
Penalties and Sentencing

Arson Causing Great Bodily Injury: This is a felony punishable by up to 9 years in prison.

Arson Causing Damage to Inhabited Structures or Properties: This is a felony punishable by up to 8 years in prison.

Arson Causing Damage to Structures or Forrest Land: This is a felony punishable by up to 6 years in prison.

Arson of Property: This is a felony punishable by up to 3 years in prison.

Aggravated Arson: This is a felony punishable by up to life in prison.

Attempted Arson: This is punishable by up to 3 years in prison.

Any person convicted of an arson crime can also face up to $50,000 in fines.


Defenses to arson crimes can include:

  • Age (generally, children under 14 cannot be held criminally liable)
  • Mental incapacity
  • Lack of criminal intent/mistake of fact
  • Duress
  • Justification/necessity


Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

Related Resources for California Arson Laws

You can click on the links below to learn more information on related laws in California.

Get Professional Legal Help With Your California Arson Case

California has a number of laws relating to arson crimes, including attempted arson and the possession of arson-related materials. There are a number of ways that an experienced criminal defense attorney can exploit weaknesses in a government's case especially when it comes to the element of intent. Protect your rights as a criminal defendant and contact an experienced California criminal defense attorney near you today.

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