Firefighter Charged in Calif. Fires

December 3, 2004

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California announced that Craig Matthew Underwood, 31, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, has been charged with three counts of willfully setting fire to federal lands.

Underwood allegedly started three fires in the Los Padres National Forest at the height of the fire season. He is charged with starting the Memorial Fire on July 28, 2004, the Slide Fire on Aug. 15, 2004, and Fred’s Fire on Sept. 22, 2004. Underwood lives near Greenfield, California, on Los Padres National Forest.

According to an affidavit filed in support of a search warrant, all three fires occurred along the Indians Arroyo Seco Road, between Fort Hunter Ligget and a Forest Service fire station at Arroyo Seco. The three fires burned a combined total of approximately 800 acres and cost approximately $2,500,000 to suppress. These damages do not include estimated damages to the watershed and timber.

Fred’s Fire, by far the largest of the three, consumed more than 750 acres, took five days to extinguish, and cost approximately $2 million to suppress. All three fires burned in the Arroyo Seco area of the Los Padres National Forest, west of Greenfield.

After the Slide Fire, a court-authorized global positioning tracker was placed on Underwood’s truck and Underwood’s residence was placed under surveillance. The investigation started on the day of the Memorial Fire, July 28, 2004, and concluded late last month.

Underwood was arrested near his residence and made his initial appearance in federal court before Judge Seeborg in San Jose. He was arraigned, pled not guilty, and was being held in the Santa Clara County Jail until electronic monitoring could be arranged. The defendant’s next scheduled appearance is set for Dec. 17, 2004 at for a preliminary hearing before Judge Seeborg.

The maximum statutory penalty for each count of arson on federal lands, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1855, is 5 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised release. However, any sentence following conviction would be dictated by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of factors, and would be imposed at the discretion of the Court.

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