The neighbor, a nice white-haired lady, thought a get-together was forming across the road at Craig Underwood’s little tan house in Arroyo Seco. Not that he threw raging parties all the time. It’s just that so many people were pouring into the property two days before Thanksgiving that she figured it must be some kind of gathering. She didn’t know they were federal agents. She had no suspicions. And she definitely didn’t know a video camera had been recently, covertly installed on the utility pole in front of her house to make a film recording of Underwood’s comings and goings.
“I didn’t know what was going on across the street,” says the neighbor, who would not give her name as she stood out on Arroyo Seco Road. “I thought they were going to havea barbecue.”
A wiener roast it was not. The federal agents were piling into Craig Underwood’s house to search for evidence. On their list of things to seek were boots, a “dime-sized clear marble with a green swirl,” towels, a backpack, “any and all types of accelerant,” pictures, documents, cameras and photos.
When she found out later that Underwood was suspected of igniting three wildfires in the Los Padres National Forest in July, Augustand September, she was shocked and disbelieving.
The final fire, on Sept. 22, was lit down by the river, only yards away from their small outpost of a neighborhood. When it caught, it really caught. It charred the whole hillside facing the area above the Arroyo Seco campground, and it leapt to the far side of the ridge.
Multiple crews of firefighters were brought in from as far away as Montana to fight the blaze. Helicopters and tanker planes tried to corner it from above with raining sheets of water and slurry. It burned for four days and licked at the edges of the Arroyo Seco settlement, but no one was seriously hurt and no private property was damaged. Some 786 acres of public forestland were burned, however, and $2.4 million in public money was spent on the effort to quell what became known as “Fred’s Fire.”
“It was scary,” the neighbor says.
The neighbor couldn’t understand how Underwood might be the guy who did it. She knew him to be a good neighbor who brought citrus fruit from his trees and came over to ask once if he could pick some jasmine from her yard for his mother. She says he was quiet. The rumor that he’d been drunk when he lit fires didn’t make sense either. She says she saw him the night of Fred’s Fire and he didn’t seem intoxicated. She’d never seen him with so much as a beer in his hand.
“He was a very nice, very nice guy,” she says. “Everyone is in a state of shock more than anything else.”
Most startling of all is that it was Underwood’s job to extinguish fires, not set them. Until federal agents arrested him, Underwood was a US Forest Service firefighter who was well liked by the few locals in Arroyo Seco. He lived right next to the Forest Service fire station, where there’s a big cutout sign of Smoky Bear at the fence telling everyone they’re the only ones who can prevent forest fires. The neighbor even says she saw Underwood going up the hill that night to fight the fire he now admits lighting.
Out on bail and not living in Arroyo Seco anymore, he’s under electronic surveillance and prohibited from entering the National Forest.
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On Friday, Dec. 17, Underwood appeared in federal court in San Jose. Chief Magistrate Judge Patricia K. Trumbull read a three-count grand jury indictment against Underwood alleging that he set three wildfires on federal land in the late summer and fall. Presiding before Underwood, his federal public defender and the federal prosecutor, she reads the same three charges, “Willfully setting fire to timber and underbrush on lands owned by the United States.” When she gets to the word “underbrush” she pauses deliberately between “under” and “brush” in a case that alleges a firefighter named Underwood burned the underbrush.
Each criminal charge holds a possible three-year prison term and $250,000 fine, but it’s not likely a civil case will be brought to recover the $2.4 million spent putting out Fred’s Fire. There are three enhancement allegations, two for the monetary loss involved and the third alleging “the defendant used a special skill in a manner that significantly facilitated the commission and concealment of the offense.”
Underwood looks like the kind of 31-year-old who might just be a wildland firefighter. He’s got a goatee and wore jeans and a sweater to court in San Jose. He was there with his parents and his federal public defender, Cynthia Lee. Once the indictment was read, a not guilty plea was entered. On Jan. 10, Judge Trumbull will set a trial date.
After the Dec. 17 appearance, Lee and the Underwoods declined to offer any comment, leaving the courtroom quickly. Prosecuting the case is assistant US Attorney Gary Fry. White-haired, he showed up for court in a green blazer and a tie with a cartoon of Santa skiing with candy canes printed on it.
Once he became a suspect after two smaller wildfires during the summer, investigators put Underwood’s house under video surveillance and surreptitiously placed a satellite-guided homing device in his truck. According to court documents, his alibis did not match with recordings of his whereabouts. Even though he confessed while being interviewed all day on November 23, a trial will commence.
“A confession is just another piece of evidence,” Fry says.
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As a county prosecutor in the Sierras, Fry has handled arson cases involving firefighters before. In two of those cases, it was firefighters setting fires or planting pipe bombs with the intent of “discovering” them and then being hailed as a hero.
It’s rare, but it does happen. A 2003 report on firefighter arson by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) highlighted several reasons why a person trained and paid to fight fires might also light them. For some, it’s exciting; it’s a turn-on. Others have done it for revenge. Some do it to conceal a crime or because they’re just vandals.
In mid-December, a jury in Colorado rejected a 12-year sentence against a former Forest Service worker who lit the biggest wildfire in state history. The 2002 fire burned 137,000 acres and consumed 130 homes. It sparked when the defendant supposedly tried to “burn a letter from her estranged husband” and the fire spread beyond control, according to reports.
But wildland firefighters like Underwood have also been known to light fires for the money. A firefighter in a wildland area gets paid only so much for just being on a fire crew. However, large or multiple fires become quite lucrative with overtime pay.
Of the average 116,000 wildfires in the US every year, some 102,000 are either intentionally or accidentally caused by humans. Of those, an estimated 10 to 20 fires are purposely set by wildland firefighters, according to the FEMA report.
In Underwood’s case, court documents state he confessed to being drunk all three times he lit the fires. Underwood told investigators that as a boy he used to deer hunt around Arroyo Seco with his father. Asked why he lit the three fires, court documents state, “He said in essence he was motivated by his desire to restore the forest’s foliage and resident deer herds to its once pristine state by use of fire.”
Fry says Underwood has no known affiliations with any eco-terrorist organizations. “It was a guy operating by himself who got drunk and lit three fires in a misguided desire to burn brush down a little bit so the deer could walk through,” Fry says.
The neighbor doesn’t even believe that. She says the brush up there wasn’t all that high anyway. To her, the whole thing is a bewildering mystery. She’s not bitter that Underwood endangered her life and property. She doesn’t want him to go to prison. She’d rather see him get some help if that’s what he needs.
“There’s not a soul around here who’s mad at him,” she says. Rather than being angry the neighbor says, “I think everyone is hurt.”