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To Catch a Fire Starter 

Investigation into Two Bulls Fire raises arson suspicions

From the second story porch of their home on Tumalo Reservoir Road, Veronica and Les Hudson watched as the fire in the forested area on the other side of Bull Flat raged, jumping from hill top to hill top, burning through ponderosa pines like they were match sticks.

As firefighters set up a base camp at the bottom of their driveway—a couple hundred feet from their front door—the couple began to pack their valuables and prepare their 50 horses for travel, in case the winds shifted.

By press time, the Two Bulls fire had burned through nearly 7,000 acres—about one third the size of Bend proper—and more than $6 million in public resources. Ultimately, the raging fire spared the Hudsons' home and horses—and the Tumalo Wildlife Corridor they have been working to protect. But, it was an extremely close call. They say the fire came within four trees of Bull Flat, an area about three miles wide and just northwest of Tumalo Reservoir.

"If it had hit, it would have been a big issue," Veronica says. "There's a lot of undergrowth and homes."

They count themselves lucky that the wind didn't blow their way. If it had: "The whole of Bull Flat would have been gone in 10 minutes," Les speculates.

By now, most people know the narrative of the season's first forest fire: Saturday, June 7, two separate fires started in the dry ponderosa forests about three miles northwest of Bend's outer limits and quickly grew together to create one large blaze. Investigators haven't released the precise location of the fire's origins.

The following Tuesday, a smaller fire started in the area, near Skyliners Road, but was quickly put out. According to the Oregon Department of Forestry, from January 1 through June 15, 166 human-caused fires burned nearly 8,000 acres of state-protected forest. About 6,000 of those burned acres were in Central Oregon; much of it the Two Bulls Fire.

While authorities won't divulge any details of the still-active investigation, they have said that they believe the fires were human caused. Shortly after officials made that determination, Cascade Timberlands offered $2,000 for information leading to a conviction of the person or people responsible for setting the Two Bulls Fire. That reward money grew quickly after Tuesday's suspicious blaze as the local government, businesses and private citizens chipped in more to the pot; as of press time, the reward has reached $40,325.

"The reward amount is higher than others I have heard about in the past," Oregon State Police Spokesperson Shane Nelson told the Source. "[There's] a lot of local interest."

The blaze began near the border of the Deschutes National Forest and timber property owned by Cascade Timberlands, the latter of which suffered the bulk of the damage. Taylor NW, a construction company adjacent to the fire, has contributed $2,500. The Dechutes County Sheriff's Office and the City of Bend have each contributed $5,000. Smith Properties and friends ponied up $10,000.

"The consequences from these fires could have been catastrophic for the city," City Manager Eric King said in a press release. "It's important that we find the cause and who's responsible for starting these fires and a reward contribution from the city is the responsible thing to do."

Indeed. The bounty appears to be a sufficiently motivating factor. Nelson says the Oregon State Police has received more than 60 tips so far. But he won't disclose whether there are persons of interest or suspects—which could mean that the police are keeping a tight lid on its investigation, or it could reflect that arsonists are notoriously difficult to catch. By their very nature, fires leave little physical evidence behind. And what remains can be misleading.

"Most fires are accidental; that's the premise you start on," says Bend Fire Marshal Larry Medina, who is not investigating the Two Bulls Fire because it is outside his jurisdiction. "Arson," he adds, "has a very strict definition."

Legally-speaking, careless behavior—like, say, failing to put out a campfire completely or engaging in other spark-creating activities, like shooting or riding an ATV—is entirely different from a person who intentionally starts a fire, especially if doing so to cause damage. Making that determination, however, is tricky—and even if evidence is recovered from the fire's origin, that information does not always point out whether the fire was intentional or accidental.

Bend Fire Chief Larry Langston says arsonists may try to lead investigators astray by leaving behind props. Case in point: the Awbrey Hall Fire. Langston says investigators initially believed the 1990 blaze, which burned 3,500 acres and 22 homes in a mere 10 hours, was accidental because of campfire items strewn about the scene. It was only after investigators with the Central Oregon Task Force arrested Aaron Douglas Groshong, a Bend firefighter and owner of Wildcat Firefighting Services, in connection with Awbrey Hall and seven other fires that the truth came out. Groshong was ultimately convicted on a count from one of the other fires and served a year and half in prison.

Langston says that determining the likely cause of the fire often hinges on what type of ignition is found at the scene. And, Fire Marshal Medina adds, what's missing can be just as important.

Some arsonists, for example, employ a delayed-start, often by attaching a cigarette to a book of matches. Because the cigarette burns relatively slowly, the fire starter has time to get out of the area before they are caught soot-handed.

Ultimately, Medina explains, fire investigators employ a scientific method to solve these crimes: They gather the evidence—whether physical items, witness testimony or weather and fuel information; then analyze the data, develop hypotheses, and test those hypotheses.

But it's not as quick of a process as a one-hour TV show, rife with a-ha moments and CSI labs deriving criminal profiles from obscure pieces of charred matchsticks—instead, OSP spokesperson Nelson says it will take "some time." And before the investigation into a fire's cause can begin, its precise origin (or, in the case of Two Bulls, origins) must first be established. Investigators in the Two Bulls Fire appear to have determined at least that much.

In ruling out weather-related causes for a wildfire, investigators will look at the last occurrence of lightning. Nothing in the last 48 hours? Probably not the cause, Fire Marshal Medina says. If the fire is adjacent to a railroad, they'll check the schedule to see if an errant spark from the wheels grinding against the track could be to blame.

Next, investigators look for evidence of human activity at the site: campfires, motorized vehicle tracks, trash, bullet casings, cigarette butts, matches, and the like.

"If you have evidence of human activity you would want to see if there are any possible ignition sources: campfires, open flames, vehicles, 4 wheelers, motorcycles, target practice, or even hunting, if its hunting season," Medina says.

The Hudsons are familiar with these ignition sources. The proximity of these dangerous activities to their home and to the Tumalo Wildlife Corridor is part of what has inspired them to enter into a formal stewardship agreement with the Bureau of Land Management, which owns portions of the land between their property and the forests in which Two Bulls raged.

On a tour through the corridor, Veronica and Les point out where people gather for "target practice" (aka, getting wasted and shooting things); all within plain site of a BLM sign that prohibits shooting. (Technically, the area is on Tumalo Irrigation District property, which does not prohibit these activities. But because the area is within two miles of the BLM land, it's still illegal.)

The spot, mere steps from the gravel road, is littered with shell casings, busted up skeet, broken glass, empty containers of beer and gin, hairspray bottles and small propane canisters. Among the casings are a few live bullets. A card table is set up next to a rock-lined fire pit. Clearly, this is someone's regular shooting gallery.

And it's a significant fire hazard, Veronica explains. Exploding cans of hairspray, the sun shining through clear shards of glass, a stray spark from the fire—there are a multitude of ways for this popular weekend spot to be Ground Zero for another major fire.

"That's probably what started the fire," Les says, looking at the cans of hairspray.

Veronica won't speculate to the cause of the fire, though she says she has an opinion. If the fire's cause was accidental, she says it seems unlikely a local is behind it.

"If you're local, you know it's very dry," she says, "and you don't do those things."

Since the Friends of the Tumalo Wildlife Corridor began erecting signs and informational kiosks, Veronica says many of the shooters and motorbike riders have found other places to play. Still, they have not disappeared completely. Between the confusing patchwork of properties—each with different permitted activities—and a lack of resources for enforcement, plenty of people are still shooting and tearing up the land.

And further west, in the forests owned by Cascade Timberlands and the U.S. Forest Service, there are fewer eyes watching over land, ensuring no careless behavior puts it at extreme risk. Although not yet pinpointed, that is the zone, amid forest service roads and mountain bike paths, where someone, intentionally or not, started a fire on June 7. Or two. Or three.

And, once a person has set three or more fires, he or she is considered a "spree," "mass" or "serial arsonist," depending on whether the fires were set in the same or different place, and if there was an emotional cooling off period in between.

According to the National Center for the Evaluation of Violent Crime (NCEVC), the most common motives for arson are vandalism, excitement, revenge, crime concealment, profit and extremism. In the case of the Two Bulls Fire, there was clearly mass destruction of property and plenty of flames for those who find fire exciting. Less apparent is whether revenge, other crimes, or potential profit may have played a role.

A simpler analysis would look at whom the fire hurt—and whom it may have helped. The former seems easy. Cascade Timberlands, the taxpayers, the federal government and nature lovers all potentially suffered as a result of the fire.

But whom did it help? While firefighters and others involved in suppressing the blaze are largely seen as heroes—and understandably so, it's not unheard of for fires to be started by the same people tasked with putting them out. Whether motived by a desire for excitement, to feel important or to generate income, such cases are uncommon but far from unheard of.

When it comes to serial arson, a clear suspect profile emerges. As is the case in many violent crimes, most perpetrators are young, white and male. Convicted serial arsonists are more likely to be smarter than the average bear, but not as socially well adjusted.

However, one characteristic in the NCEVC study would appear to discount the likelihood of the Two Bulls Fire being the work of a serial arsonist—the vast majority of those surveyed set just one fire per location. And yet, the multiplicity is responsible for much of the popular suspicion. Did an arsonist want to be particularly certain that the forest would burn? Or did someone drive through on an ATV, spewing fire-starting sparks as they traveled through the wilderness?

Even if investigators are able to identify the person or persons who started these fires, proving motive will be the difficult next step. In the well-known case of forest service worker Terry Barton, who claimed to have accidentally started a fire in Colorado when she was burning old love letters in the woods, investigators suspected her story wasn't true, but couldn't prove it. The suspect ultimately made a plea deal.

Bill Degnan, head of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, has told media that while about 20 percent of all fires are classified as arson, he suspects the real number is closer to 50 percent.

Why?

"Arsonists," Chief Langston says, "are very difficult to catch."

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