As flames from several wildfires whipped through North County this week, Supervisor Bill Horn came forward with a bold suspicion: The blazes may have been started by an arsonist still on the loose.

“I question whether or not six fires haven’t been set by somebody,” Horn said Wednesday at a news conference in Carlsbad. “I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years.”

Horn admitted “it could all be by chance” and said he did not have any evidence that arson was the cause. Fire Captain Kendal Bortisser later said the arson suspicion “did not come from Calfire” and that “the fires are under investigation.”

Horn said early on Thursday, though, that he’s not the only one with that worry, he just “probably spoke up first about it.”

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Indeed, arson is often where people’s minds drift when blazes break out. But even if an arsonist did set one or more of the current local fires (10News reported Thursday that an arson suspect in Escondido had been questioned and released), statistics show it’s actually pretty rare for wildfires to be set on purpose with some nefarious aim.

The state’s largest wildfire in history, the Cedar Fire in San Diego County in 2003, was started by a man who eventually argued he was lost and set the blaze in hopes of being found.

The Cedar Fire scorched 273,246 acres, destroyed 2,820 structures and killed 15 people.

Even the cause of that fire, though, is listed officially as “human related” – not specifically arson.

Statistics from recent years suggest only a small percentage of wildfires in San Diego County battled by Calfire are set intentionally. Of 162 wildfires listed under Calfire’s Wildfire Activity Statsitics for 2012, only seven were determined to have been caused by arson. In 2011, it was six of 196 and in 2010, it was seven of 136.

But the cause of dozens of wildfires each year in the county goes undetermined, according to Calfire.

Not including the “undetermined” and “miscellaneous” categories, the three primary causes of San Diego County wildfires battled by Calfire in 2012 were equipment use (16), debris burning (15) and lightning strikes (12).

Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, said that wildfire causes differ greatly by region.

“Back in the southern and eastern parts of the country,” Jones said, “debris burning is a huge cause of wildfires.”

Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for Calfire, said that the primary cause of wildfires in California often depends on the time of year. Leaves don’t fall as heavily here as they do in other states, but burn piles are a big cause of wildfires during times residents are permitted to do so.

“During the rest of the year, it’s a lot of unintentional starting fires … things like lawn mowing,” Tolmachoff said. “But 95 percent of the fires in California are human-caused.”

And Southern California, Tolmachoff said, is where the larger and more destructive fires are “because of the weather pattern and wild land urban interface.”

Horn said one of the reasons he believes arson may have been a factor in the blazes currently burning is because there does not seem to be much connecting each one.

Fire officials are “looking for evidence,” Horn said. “If it’s there, we’ll find it … All I have is a gut feeling.”

    This article relates to: News, San Diego Fires, Share, Wildfires, Wildlife Services

    Written by Ari Bloomekatz

    Ari Bloomekatz is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government. You can reach him directly at or 619.550.5669.

    Joe Jones
    Joe Jones subscriber

    Incisive chart. Apparently, well over 50% of fires have been caused by those Two Great Dangers: Miscellaneous and Undetermined. I trust CalFire is prioritizing them.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Horn's typical bloviating detracts from a bigger issue in my view. Two areas of government regulation have apparently (according to numerous firefighting spokespeople) had a major benefit during these fires: Building regulations for new homes to ensure fire protection and defensible space ordinances requiring clear or fire resistant areas around homes. Not only have they reduced the chance of individual homes burning, but they have also reduced the chance that one homeowner's negligence or intransigence will result in a neighboring homeowner's disaster. For those who tend to oppose government regulation, this should be a wake-up call.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Fires are a fact of life in southern California.

    Unfortunately we no longer manage these things to prevent this kind of damage to homes and property.

    We no longer do controlled burns in late winter.

    We no longer plant Iceplant as a barrier.

    We make it harder to manage brush because of endangered species choosing nature over people.

    As a result we repeat the unnecessary damage.

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    @Mark Giffin I take issue with a number of your assertions.  For example, ice plant is usually not a good barrier, especially sea fig.  It looks succulent but if you remove it, you will find a huge amount of dead material under the green top.  It will burn and worse will smolder, drying an area and then igniting it.  It also destabilizes steep slopes because it is very heavy on the top but has shallow roots.  Much of people's opinions about wildfire is based on belief not fact.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Janet Shelton @Mark Giffin  

    Actually Janet Sea fig is a good example. It is a classic example of a maligned species simply based on the fact it is non-native. The push, and codes, prefer natural fuels rather than material suited as a fire barrier.

    It was used  extensively in the 50 and 60s for just that a fire barrier and for erosion control.

    It has the advantages of low water,low nutrients and its tolerance to salt. In addition is grows flat along the ground While it can have the undergrowth as you suggest it will in fact stop a raging fire in it tracks. The weight can be a problem but is of minor concern in most situations.

    btw and fwiw I have a masters in Agricultural science.

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    @Mark Giffin I have that information from people who have similar backgrounds to yours and my own observation that sea fig burned when the fires passed through here in 2007.  I looked for studies and didn't turn one up.  Maybe you know one.  But in reflecting on this, I think it's probably the wrong debate.  Studies have been done which say that the most important factor is siting of homes and defensible space around them.  In my area, the houses that burned were placed in bad locations, in the saddle that faces east between a mountain and a large hill and on a wildland interfce.  I think planning is probably a more important factor in the loss of home.  That and defensible space, working from the center of one's home and outward.

    Carrie subscribermember

    @Mark Giffin I can show you  pictures from past fires of destroyed houses surrounded by ice plant. Defensible space is necessary but not sufficient. Many of the houses that burned in Rancho Bernardo in the 2007 fire were not even next to open space. They probably burned because wind-blown embers penetrated the attic and started the house on fire from the inside. The sole focus on "brush control" to protect home is entirely misplaced unless you're willing to live in a sea of unbroken asphalt.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Carrie Schneider  


    You know as well I do that in a fire Storm all bets are off.

    Doesn't matter if it is iceplant or natives are there at that junctur.

    That is where the brush management (firebreaks) and controlled burns come into play.

    The local ecology includes wildfires yet with the absence of fuel reduction (controlled burns) or firebreaks (bulldozed). Instead we let the fuels build up to the explosive state

    These were normal when I grew up in north county. Ilfe and property were more important.

    Now policy favors doing nothing like that anymore on the basis of the "environment" so we wash rinse repeat rather than being aggressively proactive and as a result we repeat the unnecessary damage

    Celine Faccini-Krimston
    Celine Faccini-Krimston

    we've been warned for months that the lack of rain was going to cause issue. I just don't think anyone was expecting this weather and these winds in May. My heart goes out to those impacted. The loss is horrific

    Chobbes subscriber

    Normally you would likely be correct, but considering that we had nine fires start up in one day I think the odds are that we have an arsonist on the loose.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber


    And just a coincidence that there is very little property damage and no crispy citizens.


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