Close Menu
Milligan, Beswick, Levine & Knox, LLP - Attorneys at Law
  • Confidential Consultations
  • Hablamos Español

Accidental Fires vs. Intentional Arson in California

Accidental Fires vs. Intentional Arson in California

Most California residents assume that if you accidentally cause a fire, you cannot face criminal charges. After all, there is a major difference between intentional arson and simply allowing a fire to get out of control. But while intent plays a central role in many criminal cases, it is still possible to face serious consequences even for accidental fires. This is a lesson that two parents in California have learned after a gender reveal party gone wrong. At the same time, another individual in California has admitted to intentionally sparking numerous forest fires. These two incidents highlight how California treats accidental and intentional fires and how both situations can lead to criminal consequences

Parents Plead Guilty to Setting Fire During Gender Reveal Party

Pyrotechnics have become common fixtures in so-called “gender reveal parties” across California. The basic premise is simple: Expecting parents reveal the gender of their children in a somewhat performative fashion, using elaborate mechanisms and ploys to show whether they will have a boy or a girl. These parties have become increasingly complex as parents try to outdo each other on social media. Fireworks and similar devices are proving popular – but these items also pose fire risks. 

In the summer of 2020, a couple in San Bernardino County detonated a pyrotechnic device in Yucaipa Park as part of a gender reveal party. The device did not go off as intended, and it sparked a fire that quickly spiraled out of control. The pair apparently tried to extinguish the flames with bottled water – but the blaze raged out of control thanks to scorching hot conditions and winds that fueled the inferno. 

Eventually, the fire spread across 22,000 acres. When all was said and done, hundreds were forced to evacuate – and five people completely lost their homes. 13 civilians were injured, and two firefighters suffered injuries. One firefighter died while attempting to combat the blaze. 

As a result of the ordeal, the couple faced numerous charges. Years later, they accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to various offenses. The father pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and two counts of causing a fire to an inhabited structure – both felonies. He was subsequently sentenced to a year in jail, two years of probation, and hours of community service. The mother pleaded guilty to three counts of reckless causing a fire to another’s property – all misdemeanors. She avoided incarceration, receiving community service and a year of probation instead. Finally, the couple was ordered to pay almost $2 million in restitution to the victims. 

Former Professor Admits He Intentionally Set Fires in California

At around the same time, a former professor in California also admitted to starting several fires in northern California. This individual once taught criminology at various universities, and at some point, he began to struggle with a mental health crisis. Police believe that he set dozens of fires. One notable incident involved the Dixie Fire, which proved to be one of the most dangerous blazes the Golden State had ever seen. The professor set fires behind firefighters combating this wildfire, effectively surrounding them. 

Eventually, investigators placed a tracking device on his vehicle and began to trace his movements. His trips coincided with more fires, and so he was arrested. At first, he denied everything. In February of 2024, however, he finally admitted to starting the fires. The individual regularly uploaded educational videos to YouTube on the subject of arson. In one video, he filmed the aftermath of a forest fire and stated: “I’m just doing this for research, trying to analyze the environment.” This individual is facing three arson counts – each with a maximum sentence of 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000. 

PC 451 vs. PC 452 in California

Arson-related offenses fall under PC 451 and PC 452 in California. The crime of “arson” falls under PC 451, while “recklessly starting a fire” falls under PC 452. These crimes are similar but with a number of important differences. 

PC 451 is a more serious offense, and it involves willful or malicious intent. In other words, this fire was no accident – and the defendant fully intended to start the fire. This offense obviously applies to the former college professor, who admitted to starting numerous forest fires. 

PC 452, on the other hand, only involves “recklessness.” In other words, these fires are accidental. That being said, not all accidents will lead to charges under PC 452. There is a difference between a “reckless” accident and a normal accident. A reckless accident involves serious negligence, and these are actions that no reasonable person would ever take. The gender reveal parents faced these charges because a reasonable person would not ignite a pyrotechnic device in the middle of a dry forest – especially not for a meaningless celebration. 

With all that said, the father faced another serious charge as a result of this offense: Felony involuntary manslaughter. This crime can lead to up to four years in prison. While this might sound more serious than recklessly starting a fire, the latter has a higher maximum prison sentence of six years if the blaze results in serious injury or death. In the aforementioned case, the father probably avoided such serious consequences by pleading guilty. 

These various crimes and consequences show just how serious a fire can be in California – whether it was intentional or accidental. 

Find a Qualified Arson Defense Attorney in California

If you are facing criminal charges for fire-related offenses in San Bernardino County, it is very important to get in touch with an experienced California defense attorney at your earliest convenience. Due to the prevalence of destructive forest fires in recent years, California courts are likely to take these situations very seriously. More often than not, prosecutors try to “send a message” – making an example of anyone who starts fires in the Golden State. Their goal is to dissuade anyone else from similar actions to increase public safety. Recent cases show that even accidental fires can lead to serious consequences, so book your consultation with Milligan, Beswick, Levine & Knox, LLP today to get started with an effective defense strategy.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

Stephen Levine, is a Board Certified Specialist in Criminal Defense — an honor achieved by only the top criminal law attorneys in California. Mr. Levine has over 40 years of experience in criminal defense and family law serving Southern California, and is a highly regarded Super Lawyer as well as AV Rated attorney.