A 32-year-old man has been charged with intentionally starting nine Southern California fires, including one that has leaped through mountainous terrain in Riverside County and routed thousands of residents from their homes.
Brandon McGlover of Temecula was arraigned Friday afternoon on 15 felony counts that carry a potential sentence of life in prison.
The Riverside Press-Enterprise reported that in a hearing that lasted three minutes, McGlover pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. Bail was increased from $1 million to $3.5 million.
McGlover's attorney, Joseph Camarata, made a statement outside the court building in the town of Murrieta, which denied his client was responsible for the fires.
“On behalf of Brandon and his family, our thoughts and prayers are with those that are fighting these fires and the families that have been affected by them,” Camarata said. “Our hope is that if these were intentionally set, that the person who set them is found so he can’t do it again.”
Prosecutors have not commented on a suspected motive for the alleged arson, or specified exactly how the fires are believed to have been ignited.
All nine fires were set Wednesday in the Idyllwild, Anza and Sage areas about 100 miles east of Los Angeles. One became the Cranston Fire that has grown to 11,500 acres -- 18 square miles -- in the San Jacinto Mountains. The fire is only 3 percent contained as of early Friday.
Five homes have been destroyed, more than 4,900 structures are threatened and an estimated 6,000 people have been evacuated.
Some 1,400 firefighters have been thrown into the battle to protect Idyllwild, a mountain community that sits at an elevation of 5,400 feet above sea level.
Fire commanders said the behavior of the Cranston Fire, which produced spectacular pyrocumulus clouds on Wednesday and Thursday as it incinerated dry trees and brush, appeared to have moderated on Friday.
From the Los Angeles Times:
The fire appeared to be spreading east of Mountain Center and into the San Jacinto Wilderness, as well as north of Lake Hemet.
The blaze is expected to keep growing through Friday, especially in the wilderness and the Rattlesnake Spring areas, according to Chad Cook, operations section chief with the California Incident Management Team.
“The fire is laying down now,” Riverside County Fire Chief Dan Talbot said during a morning briefing. But “it looked like that yesterday morning too, and then it roared back to life. Keep that in mind.”
Response teams are keeping a close eye on the communities of Apple Canyon and Vista Ranch, which are threatened by the spreading flames. Fire-control efforts have been hampered by the extreme heat and low humidity and the other fires around the state.
The Times also offered a capsule history of some of the repeated close calls Idyllwild has experienced with past wildfires:
Although the mile-high community is not yet in the clear, advance planning by fire officials and local residents may have helped avoid a major disaster, said Patrick Reitz, chief of the Idyllwild Fire Protection District. Fire authorities have been warning for years about the buildup of tinder-dry trees and brush on all sides and the community took heed.
“Idyllwild was saved by years of preplanning,” Reitz said. “That includes removal of thousands of dead and dying trees, construction of miles of firebreaks and evacuation plans” drafted by at least a dozen mountain camps that cater to thousands of youths, several town organizations and fire authorities.
“Before we pulled the cord on a formal mandatory evacuation shortly after the Cranston fire began around noon Friday, most of the youth camp folks were already off the mountain,” he said.
Following close behind were an estimated 6,000 residents who found themselves on traffic-choked two-lane roads that hug the ragged northern slopes of the San Jacinto Mountains, where suburbia meets the wilderness.
The community’s disaster plan was based on a variety of fire scenarios that identified staging areas for firefighters and equipment and safety zones and escape routes for evacuees, officials said.
It wasn't the first time this community, known for its art and music foundations and schools, has been shaken by fire.
The first time Idyllwild was evacuated was in July 1996, when the Bee fire crept up the mountain. Residents returned to their homes on the July 4 weekend and held a parade led by local firefighters.
A decade later, the arson-caused Esperanza fire triggered an explosion of heat and flames that killed four local firefighters and critically injured another. Relatives and neighbors in Idyllwild responded to their loss with strong emotions, flags at half-staff and an army of volunteers to help the affected families.
The town was evacuated again in 2013, when it was attacked by the Mountain fire.