Mother Nature, Arson Responsible for Widespread Fires, 2 Firefighters Severely Burned

October 27, 2020Joshua Skovlund
california wildfires

Wildland fires burn during a mid-August night near Susanville, Calif. A series of wildland fires has destroyed more than 30,000 acres of land around Susanville. Photo courtesy of DVIDS.

Two hand-crew firefighters were caught and critically injured by the wind-fueled flames of the Silverado Fire Complex around 12:15 p.m. Monday, announced Brian Fennessy, the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) fire chief, during a Monday press conference. Both Mother Nature and arsonists are responsible for the various wildfires that continue to spread throughout California. 

“This is a tough fire — we are experiencing very high winds and very low humidity,” Fennessy said at the press conference. “Our firefighters are some of the bravest, if not the bravest in the world. This is a very hazardous job.” 

The two firefighters’ names have not yet been released, though one is said to be 26 years old and the other, 31. Their injuries include second- and third-degree burns over 65% and 50% of their bodies, respectively. Both are intubated and being treated at the Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana, California.

The Silverado Fire Complex sparked to life Monday and grew from an initial 2,000 acres burned to over 11,000 acres burned in less than 48 hours, according to OCFA. Low humidity and high winds are accelerating the wildfires, though calmer winds are expected Tuesday. Mandatory and voluntary evacuations have been ordered due to the Silverado wildfire as well as another neighboring wildfire, the Blue Ridge Fire Complex, with approximately 8,000 acres burned. 

The causes of the Silverado and Blue Ridge wildfires are still under investigation at this time. Natural causes, such as lightning, have been responsible for some fires; there have been human causes as well. Both accidental and intentional fires have been started by people in California, with some of the arsonists under arrest and others being searched for.

According to an Oct. 14, 2020, Department of Justice press release, 38-year-old Eric Michael Smith was charged for serial arson, a felony, after setting multiple fires within Shasta County, California, during the time frame of June 23 to July 29, 2020. 

Smith is accused of using a “virtually untraceable cigarette lighter or pen torch” to start the fires. “One of these fires started near Turntable Bay and required the temporary closure of lanes on Interstate 5 while firefighters suppressed the blaze. Two other fires started along Gilman Road, in the general area where the devastating Hirz Fire began during the summer of 2018. A fourth fire was started in the area of Jones Valley,” the press release said.

More than 4 million acres have burned, more than 10,000 structures have been damaged or destroyed, and 31 people have lost their lives all due to the wildfires in California. It begs the question: Why would someone set fires when Mother Nature is already burning the land?

US Forest Service Special Agent Tyler Bolen, the agent who investigated and searched for Smith, stated in his request for a search/arrest warrant: “Based on my training and experience, I […] know that arsonists derive pleasure and satisfaction from observing first responders react to the fires that arsonists set. Indeed, experiencing this pleasure and satisfaction is one of the primary motivators for arsonists to set fires. One way for arsonists to preserve these feelings of pleasure and satisfaction is to take photographs or record video footage of first responders reacting to fires that arsonists set.” 

According to The Associated Press, Smith is out on bond while awaiting trial. 

On Sunday, four different fires started and were quickly contained by local and state firefighters, according to Record Searchlight. The Point fire, Dersch fire, Bailey fire, and an unnamed fire off of Olinda Road and West Anderson Drive burned more than 400 acres in Shasta County before being extinguished. Cal Fire lists the fire incidents as “under investigation,” and Record Searchlight heard over firefighter radio chatter that the Point fire was being investigated for arson.

The Shasta County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to requests for further information at the time of publication.

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children.

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