Boy accused of starting California wildfire charged with arson

A boy accused of causing a fire that scorched more than 5,700 acres and prompted evacuations near the community of North Fork, Calif., was charged with two felonies in Madera County Superior Court on Tuesday.

Madera County District Attorney David Linn said the boy, who was not identified because of his young age (Linn said he is younger than 14), was charged with arson and unlawfully starting a fire – both of which are felonies. The boy also was remanded to Madera County Juvenile Detention Facility, a rare step in a juvenile case, but one that Linn said was necessary.

Linn said his office wanted to make sure the boy did not try to flee the charges or start anymore fires. The third reason to hold the boy in the juvenile facility, Linn said, was for hisprotection.

“Juvenile hall is safer than his own community right now,” said Linn, who declined to say exactly where the boy lives other than “eastern Madera County.”

Linn said the motion to hold the boy in the juvenile facility was met with “vigorous argument” by the boy’s court-appointed defense attorney. Judge James D. Oakley ultimately sided with Linn.

The boy allegedly was lighting pine branches on fire in the area on July 25 when he lost control of the tiny fire and ignited nearby brush. He yelled for help, and his parents tried to put out the fire before calling 911.

The fire grew throughout late July and early August, prompting the evacuation of the Cascadel Woods community and other nearby neighborhoods. No structures were destroyed, but the fire burned 5,702 acres and cost at least $18.3 million to fight, the U.S. Forest Service said. The forest service reported full containment on Saturday.

Linn said the cost of the firefighting will be part of the boy’s restitution if he is convicted. But practically speaking, repayment for the millions of dollars that the fire cost will “never happen.”

The boy will appear in court on Aug. 26 for a pretrial hearing, with the adjudication hearing – essentially the trial date – scheduled for Aug. 28.

Linn is asking for formal mental health care, possibly in a psychiatric facility, for the boy. After speaking with psychiatrists, he believes the child suffers from an emotional disorder.

Another boy, 15, also will be in court on Aug. 28 for a similar reason.

The teen was convicted of starting 13 fires in the Oakhurst area last year, and Linn said he violated his probation by taking pictures of the Willow fire and posting them on social media. Court orders forbid him from taking pictures of or being around any fire.

Oakley ordered on Monday that the teen be placed on electronic monitoring. The boy, who is home schooled, will not be able to leave his father’s home for any reason until his court date.

“Forty percent of all arsons are started by young people – mostly boys,” Linn said.

“In less than 24 hours, we took two alleged arsonists off the street for a while.”