Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fire-making materials linked to firefighter

From the Sacramento Bee:
Yolo County prosecutors Friday revealed key aspects of their case against a volunteer firefighter accused of setting wildfires in the rural Capay Valley of California.

Robert Eric Eason, 39, from the hamlet of Guinda, sat beside his lawyer in Yolo Superior Court as investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection testified about years of effort to catch the suspected serial arsonist.

Cal Fire Deputy Chief Alan Carlson said a search of Eason's home in October 2006 yielded materials for making time-delay incendiary devices from mosquito coils, spirals of a claylike substance that smolder for hours.Carlson said experiments showed the coils could be hurled from speeding cars and would fly "like a Frisbee" into tinder-dry grass. An investigator of hundreds of fires, Carlson said he had never seen the coils used before.

No coils were found at the sites of the 16 fires Eason is charged with setting in 2005 and 2006, some of which he helped fight. Carlson said that wasn't surprising. The burned material "disappears in the other ash" and could be trampled or washed away by firefighters.

A remnant of a mosquito coil was found at the site of a suspicious wildfire in 1999, said another witness, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Eric Hoffmann.

Eason is not charged with that fire or others because the statute of limitations expired. But Carlson testified he suspects Eason of having set fires since he was in his late teens.

"The evidence indicates to me that he started back in the '80s," the investigator said under cross-examination by defense lawyer Rodney Beede.

On average nationwide, about 30 percent of arson fires are set by firefighters, Carlson testified. Arsonists commonly operate in areas close to home, where they are familiar with the landscape, he said. They use time-delay devices so they can be elsewhere and have alibis when fires start, he said.

"They feel they have the odds on their side to light a fire and get away with it," Carlson said.

Some of the fires Eason is charged with setting were in the rugged Rumsey Canyon, at the top of the Capay Valley, while others were lower down the valley, near Guinda and Esparto.

Supervising Deputy District Attorney Garrett Hamilton is set to take the case to trial in late September. Friday's hearing was held to determine whether evidence of fires that Eason is not charged with could be admitted at trial.

Roadside surveillance videos shot in 1999 and 2003 showed vehicles Eason might have driven traveling into areas where wildfires occurred soon afterward, Hoffmann testified. The fires attributed to Eason range from a 1,000- acre blaze to small burned patches. No one was injured in the fires he is charged with igniting.

The hearing before Judge Stephen L. Mock is scheduled to continue Friday in Woodland. Eason remains free on bail.

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