Schizophrenic Transient Ordered to Pay $101M for Starting 2006 Day Fire - NBC Southern California

Schizophrenic Transient Ordered to Pay $101M for Starting 2006 Day Fire

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    Sept. 23, 2006: The Day Fire glows in the night in the wilderness beyond Thomas Aquinas College as Santa Ana winds push the fire west. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

    LOS ANGELES -- A "nature-loving" transient who started the fifth-largest wildfire in California history was sentenced Monday by a Los Angeles judge to nearly four years in federal prison and ordered to pay $101 million in restitution.

    Steven Emory Butcher, 50, was convicted in February of starting the 2006 Day Fire in Los Padres National Forest at his campsite in Piru Canyon. The month-long wildfire burned more than 162,000 acres and cost more than $78 million to fight, prosecutors said.

    "I threw a cigarette butt or two on the pile," Butcher told the judge Monday. "I tried everything to put it out. I'm afraid of fire. I hid up there for days afterward watching the animals running scared around me."

    Butcher, who says he spent years alone in the wilderness, was also convicted of causing the 2002 Ellis Fire that burned about 70 acres of the same forest.

    Before sentencing, U.S. District Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank said Butcher "clearly loves nature," but suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, depression and alcoholism and should undergo a mental health evaluation to determine whether he will ever actually be released from custody.

    In arguing for a 10-year sentence, prosecutor Joseph O. Johns, chief of the environmental crimes section of the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Butcher presents "a substantial danger to society."

    "But for the grace of God, this could've been a homicide case," Johns said. "Every adult knows how dangerous fire is in Southern California in the summer, particularly when it's hot and windy. We're seeing it right now."

    The Day Fire was started on Sept. 4, 2006, on the Ojai Ranger District within a remote portion of Piru Canyon in the Sespe Wilderness area of the Los Padres National Forest, a place where Butcher had long maintained campsites, prosecutors said.  

    The fire burned until Oct. 2, 2006, causing 18 injuries and destroying 11 structures, officials said.

    The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection lists the Day Fire as the fifth-largest wildfire in state history.

    Along with 45 months in federal prison, Fairbank ordered Butcher to pay $101 million in restitution to Los Padres National Forest -- a sum Butcher could never pay.

    The judge said that while Butcher was not an arsonist in the traditional sense, he presented a danger of recidivism given his long history of homelessness and living in remote parts of the California wilderness.

    "The fact that in 2006 he engaged in virtually the same conduct as in 2002 shows extreme recklessness," she said.

    After the sentence was pronounced, co-prosecutor Sharon K. McCaslin told the judge that Butcher may not be as benign as he appeared. She said he had made numerous threats on her life while he was in custody.

    "He threatened to kidnap and kill me," she told Fairbank. "It's not comforting to know that someone harbors those feelings towards me. I do not believe he is harmless. I believe there is some duality to him."

    McCaslin said the FBI was made aware of the threats, but she would not ask for further charges to be brought against Butcher.

    Butcher tried to respond, but his attorney held him back and the judge left the bench.

    Butcher was convicted in February of two felonies -- two counts of willfully setting debris on fire in the Los Padres National Forest.

    He was also found guilty of three misdemeanors -- allowing a fire to escape from his control, starting the Ellis Fire; violating National Forest restrictions by building a fire, which caused the Day Fire; and smoking in the Los Padres National Forest.

    "I love nature," Butcher said. "I screwed up, and that's why I'm here."