Hundreds of California’s wildfires are set on purpose, and the arsonists who start them are rarely caught. This is how CAL Fire caught one of them.
In the early hours of Sept. 22, 2006, P.J. Phillips was awakened by a phone call from his parents. Phillips’ sheep ranch in the Capay Valley — a rural stretch of walnut orchards northwest of Sacramento — was on fire.
“You could hear the grass burning,” Phillips said. “The snap, crackle, pop.” By the next morning, everything had burned. Phillips lost 270 sheep. The fire cost the Yolo County ranch thousands of dollars, and about a week later, a local sheriff discovered a second fire in almost the exact same spot.
P.J. Phillips was raised with wildfires. When the winter rains stop in California the state becomes a tinderbox and, as climate change accelerates, the resulting wildfires are getting worse. Most of them are started by accident, but there was something different about the way the fires on Phillips’ ranch started. A few weeks after his sheep burned, Phillips received a call from the local district attorney, who told him that both fires had been started on purpose.
He was shocked. “Who would do something so demented as to set something on fire?” he said.
A valley with a fire problem
Nobody really knows how many wildfires are started by arsonists, in California or anywhere else. Cal Fire says arsonists set around 7 percent of the state’s wildfires. Other studies suggest they set about 20 percent. According to multiple arson investigators and profilers, many wildland arsonists feel frustrated by their lives or shortchanged. Setting fires can be a way for them to regain control or exert control over others.
Wildland arsonists also tend to set a lot of fires, operating for years before they’re caught. “I would say that at some points in time, I was probably working over 20 arson cases,” said Alan Carlson, a former Cal Fire investigator who has helped solve wildland arson cases around the country.
Carlson oversaw Operation High Desert, the team of investigators that eventually tracked down the arsonist who burned P.J. Phillips’ sheep in 2006. That case is now considered one of California’s exemplary wildland arson investigations.
Before they caught the man who burned Phillips’ sheep, most people in the Capay Valley didn’t think they had a fire problem. In the ’90s, the majority of the fires in the area were small. But as the years went by, there were more and more of them. By 2004, there were about 10 times more fires in the Capay Valley than there used to be. Then later that year, a fire outside town engulfed an area bigger than San Francisco. The cause was undetermined, but many suspected arson.