In March 2009, Raymond Lee Oyler became the first U.S. citizen to be convicted for murder and sentenced to death for setting a wildfire, a California blaze that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters. The conviction signals a legal and cultural shift in the western United States, where wildfire arson has often gone unpunished, reports John N. Maclean in High Country News (Aug. 2, 2010).
It may seem remarkable, but the West has long had a cultural tolerance for firestarting, including “make-work” fires that burn off dry brush and provide billable hours for firefighters. One Forest Service management officer who was charged in 2005 for setting two such fires explained that “I wasn’t trying to set an arson fire. I was trying to clean this piece of country up.” He ascribed his actions to tradition and got 50 letters of support from fellow firefighters.
Oyler, for his part, appears to have been intent on arson, setting a series of increasingly large blazes for thrills. His prosecution is expected to have reverberations, and has already been used as a model in a California case. “Tolerance for the torch,” writes Maclean, “has gone the way of the Old West.”
This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.