Wildland Arson or Accidental Fire in California

Today’s burning question: I’m a wildland firefighter and I accidentally started a fire when the cigarette I was smoking burned me and I tossed it. Can I be charged with arson?

Firefighter Daniel Mariano Madrigal goes on trial today in Superior Court in Rancho Cucamonga, California on arson charges related to a July 25, 2010 blaze (I am not making up the Cucamonga part either). He is a US Forest Service firefighter.

According to his lawyer, Madrigal drove out to a remote area to make a cellphone call, when his cigarette burned him. He tossed it away, but immediately began searching for it. Shortly thereafter he discovered the fire and returned to his station. He and his captain then responded to extinguish the fire which was contained to a small area.

Can he be charged? Obviously. Can he be convicted? That will depend on whether the jury believes his story. Madrigal is charged with “willfully, unlawfully and maliciously” causing the wildland fire. Some states have a lesser charge of negligently causing a wildland fire. The state would have an easier case if he was charged with negligently causing the fire… but in either event it will come down to believability.

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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  • Daniel

    first of all in order for a cigarette to start a brush fire the RH (relative humidity) needs to be in the single digits and moderate sustainable winds, and fuel moisture content needs to be around 12%, furthermore in order for a heat source to ignite a give fuel it will need it to be constant in order for the fuel to reach its ignition temperature. Now according to the defense, he claims the cigarette burned him causing him to throw it into the vegetation, this means the cigarette could have been near done burning it tobacco and paper product, causing to burn up to the filter where it usually burns itself out leaving no room for question did the cigarette burn long enough to combust the surrounding vegetation?
    Other considerations: This happened late night at over 2,000 feet elevation

  • Thanks Daniel. He did end up pleading the case out.



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