It’s time to turn up the heat in fight against arsonists
June 8, 2007
They are starting early. It’s no surprise. The immeasurable power of their intolerable heat competing with their overpowering autumn leaf-colored light that seems to fiercely snarl at the wavering shrouds of black and gray that are as ominous as fire-cast shadows in Hell itself. I am referring to forest fires.
Fire is one of the mighty gods that issues unforgiving demands for our respect. Fire is omnipotent in its interchangeable stand for reverence, evil, warmth, destruction, and power. It is a symbol of all that is both good and bad. It is also the symbol of stupidity – stupidity that flares with the careless drop of a cigarette butt. Worse is the deliberate strike of a match – a small match, which in a dry forest contains the concentrated destructive force the size of a flame thrower.
At the probable risk of perceived extremity, I believe the penalties for fire-starting arsons should at least equal that of manslaughter if no one is killed. It doesn’t take much for a massive fire to jump our highways and rage into our heavily populated neighborhoods. Wildlife, pets, and human life are all vulnerable to the unrelenting fire storms that scorch and scar the forests that carpet our mountainsides. Believe me, our moisture-drained forests do not need any help to erupt in flames.
This year, with snowfall having forgotten our mountain ranges like the Island of Misfit Toys, our forests are now more like a pyre full of kindling with an open sky as its chimney.
Summer has not yet begun and our area has already had several fires, including one in Mound House that burned more than 400 acres. Several days have brought temperatures above 80 degrees and winds above 45 miles per hour – our version of a giant fan.
Statewide, we’ve had 161 fires that burned 8,412 acres, compared to last year at this time when 76 fires burned 2,421 acres.
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Once again, as I have often contended for many punishments for crimes, I believe our penalties are not formidable enough to seriously impact or severely thwart fires that are set out of malice and significantly minimize those started from gross negligence.
And, once again, it seems to me that our criminal statutes lean too heavily on the monetary value of damages than to the potential damage to human life. I have no problem at all with the punishments that are consequent to someone dying as a result of arson, which is classified as first degree murder under the felony murder rule – a category A felony. The punishments range from life imprisonment without parole to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after serving 20 years behind bars, to 50 years in the cell with parole eligibility after 20 years if you are a good little boy or girl. But I do have a problem – a big problem – with the punishments that follow category C and category D felonies for fire-related arson. I even contend the punishments for misdemeanors associated with starting fires. The punishments are set up in brackets according to the value of the damage with a top level that lumps damages greater than $5,000 in one category. But what about the potential damage as in human life? Why slight the guilty arsonists of intent to murder just because a family was smart and quick enough to get the hell out of their house while their back yard is being reshaped into a fireball?
So, if someone fails to extinguish or guard a campfire on federal land without the proper permit, the misdemeanor is met with 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 fine. Sorry, not hard enough – not if you take into account what could have happened had the fire not been controlled in time.
We cannot prevent nature’s gods of fire from tossing their lightning bolt javelins into our mountainsides, but we can make life much more painful for the cerebral-deficient who think it’s funny or fascinating to start a fire at our expense. But the fact that they are charged with punishments set proportionally to the monetary value of the damages is, in my view, just not enough. And it burns me up.
• John DiMambro is publisher of the Nevada Appeal. Write to him at email@example.com.