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Inland man charged in fire-starter crackdown


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12:01 AM PDT on Wednesday, August 8, 2007

By SONJA BJELLAND
The Press-Enterprise

Hoping to send the message that people who start fires -- even accidentally -- will face consequences, federal officials Tuesday announced that eight people and two companies have been charged in connection with several Southland wildfires that burned thousands of acres.

"You don't have to be an arsonist to cause fires that can wreak a tremendous amount of damage," said Thom Mrozek, a U.S. attorney's office spokesman.

Two misdemeanor charges were filed against Jeremiah D. Hope, of Riverside, who officials said unintentionally started a blaze in 2003 that merged with the disastrous Old Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest.

Hope, 25, faces up to one year in federal prison if convicted, Mrozek said. Hope, who was the only Inland person charged, has not yet appeared in court or entered a plea.

In October 2003, Hope headed with some friends to watch the Old Fire, officials said.

He drove down a dirt road near a playground where vehicles were not allowed. When he stopped, his vehicle ignited the brush, causing a 20- to 30-acre fire, according officials.

The so-called Playground Fire quickly merged with the Old Fire. Authorities said that blaze, which burned 91,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,000 homes, was caused by arson. No one has been charged with starting the Old Fire.

On Tuesday, the U.S. attorney's office also announced this week's arrest of a transient accused of lighting campfires in 2002 and 2006 that burned out of control in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara.

Also in Los Padres, a concrete company was charged for allowing a worker to use a saw that sparked a fire, and a demolition company was charged because an employee used a tractor without a spark arrestor.

Charges also were filed for two fires in the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County. Reach Sonja Bjelland at 951-368-9642 or sbjelland@PE.com

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