NEAR BANNING, Calif. - "If you are setting fires in California, you might as well be pointing a gun at somebody," says Mike Hestrin.
After billions of dollars in property loss, and too many lives lost, he says, "I think there's no tolerance. We have a zero tolerance policy."
If anyone understands what a jury will tolerate when it comes to arson, it's Mike Hestrin. The newly elected Riverside County District Attorney prosecuted Raymond Lee Oyler, and sent him to death row for the murders of five US Forest Service firefighters. They died in October 2006 while protecting an under-construction home just south of Banning.
The firefighters of Engine 57 tried to take shelter behind the Octagon House, but the shape of the home almost made things worse. Plus, it was so hot, so dry and so windy, the valley didn't just burn over, it practically exploded.
"It was a fireball. Kind of just was moving too fast for them to get out of there...I'm not sure they knew they weren't coming home, but they knew they were in serious danger. And they went into it despite those fears," Hestrin says.
The Octagon House itself became somewhat of a shrine to those five men. Crosses mark the places where the men lost their lives, and a monument, erected by the homeowner, serves as a touchstone for their friends and families to visit any time, when they need a moment with their fallen loved ones.
Hestrin keeps a photo of firefighter Jess McLean in his Riverside office, along with a photo of a firefighter from Engine 52, who is silhouetted against the explosion of the Octagon House and the five firefighters of Engine 57. It was a gift from the families of those five men.
McLean, he says, "loved being a firefighter."
Unfortunately in California, the types of conditions that ultimately cost these men their lives are becoming more and more common, especially in mountain communities.
"The threat of fire is very much on their mind even when it's not fire season," says Hestrin. "So when fire season rolls around and you have an arsonist at work, people are on edge."
And when someone sets a fire, like the Esperanza fire, the effect is devastating.
"Arson is terrorizing communities."
Since the Oyler case, another man, Rickie Lee Fowler, got sentenced to death for his role in starting the "Old Fire." At least five people died of heart attacks during the massive fire and evacuation effort in San Bernardino County. Prosecutors are no longer afraid to take arson cases before a jury.
"If you are intentionally setting fires, you're going to be responsible for what happens, to people to property. We will catch you," says Hestrin.
The Oyler and Fowler cases received a lot of publicity because the arsonists were charged with murder, but the consequences of arson are severe regardless. Sentences range from probation, to prison time, from 25 years to life.
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