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Investigators See Increasing Forest, Range Arson

July 20, 1987

BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ Arson fires have been increasing on public land, especially in the West, and authorities plan to look beyond Mother Nature to human nature in an effort to curtail thousands of unexplained blazes.

In Idaho alone, arsonists have sparked at least six fires already this summer in national forests and on Bureau of Land Management range, made tinder-dry by the state’s worst drought in a decade.

The blazes have charred more than 2,000 acres of valuable timber and grazing land, destroyed a $150,000 house, several cars and a fire engine and threatened remote ranch houses.

The fire season is still young. ″We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg,″ said Fire Management Officer Gene Benedict of the Payette National Forest.

″It isn’t just that somebody sets a fire; there’s starting to be some costs associated with it, some property lost and lives endangered,″ Benedict said. ″The people who have that kind of sickness, I don’t know that you can rationalize with them.″

Arson accounts for only about 3 percent of the blazes that annually ravage public lands in the West, although the rate has reached 20 percent in California. Fires caused by lightning and by accident still dominate.

The numbers, however, have been rising dramatically.

In the Great Basin of southern Idaho, northern Utah and northern Nevada, the number of fires reported as arson increased from 17 in 1983 to 79 in 1986. Nationally, the number soared by nearly 7,300 to 29,963 last year. Figures for this year were not available.

Officials suspect a combination of causes, including an increase in rural development that has given more people ready access to the wilderness.

Benedict, whose southwestern Idaho forest last week was the victim of its first arson fire since the early 1960s, says improved investigative procedures also have helped authorities detect arson fires.

Investigators spend much of their time each summer sifting through the ashes of suspicious blazes for clues.

Arson is a particular threat in Idaho, where dry heat and a winter that saw the lightest mountain snowpack since 1977 has left even new vegetation dry.

″I personally attribute it to more people, certainly, but secondly to some individuals who for one reason or another are upset with the government, and the federal lands take the brunt of that,″ said Doug Bird, aviation and fire management director for the U.S. Forest Service’s Intermountain Region based in Ogden, Utah.

Bird said the arson rate varies by region, with people in the West ″a little more understanding of natural resources″ than those in the Southeast, where arson is responsible for about 30 percent of forest and grass fires.

″It’s a cultural problem there, with people setting fires to clear brush and sometimes to spite their neighbors,″ said Bill McCleese, the Forest Service’s assistant director of fire management in Washington, D.C. ″It’s kind of been a socially acceptable practice.″

A vigorous campaign in recent years to determine the cause of range fires is starting to pay off in terms of public awareness of the risk involved, said Dan Hughes, the Bureau of Land Management’s chief fire investigator in Idaho.

Much wilderness arson goes unsolved because of a lack of witnesses, Benedict said. But when federal officials obtain a conviction, the punishment is up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The government also can bill arsonists for suppression and damage costs, which can be steep. One lightning-caused fire in western Idaho last summer cost $250,000 a day to control.

″We are going to be looking real closely at any new starts where we haven’t had any recent lightning activity,″ Benedict says. ″We’re going to be checking license plates and looking at people real hard.″

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