A 26-year-old arson parolee pleaded guilty Monday in Los Angeles to setting fire to historic trees and brush in the Oasis of Mara area of Joshua Tree National Park.
George William Graham of Twentynine Palms admitted to starting the March 26 fire with a cigarette lighter, according to his plea agreement.
U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real set a July 16 sentencing hearing on the federal charge of unlawfully setting timber afire. The felony offense is punishable by up to five years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000.
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National Park Service Law Enforcement Rangers arrested Graham at the scene of the fire. Graham was observed watching the blaze and admitted to law enforcement officers that he started the fire, which consumed a number of historic trees and other National Park Service lands and natural resources, according to the criminal complaint.
Graham was known both to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and the National Park Service as a California arson parolee, with prior law-enforcement contacts with both state and federal authorities, according to court records.
Angela Viramontes, Graham's federal public defense attorney, told the judge Monday that her client has "significant" mental issues. The fire, near the park's Oasis Visitor's Center, burned 2.5 acres and charred numerous trees, but no structures were damaged.
Called the "cornerstone" of the national park, the Oasis of Mara was first settled centuries ago by the Serrano people who named it Mara, meaning "the place of little springs and much grass." According to legends, the Serrano planted 29 palms, one for each boy that was born in the oasis during the first year of their residence.