Former college professor charged with arson spree

This summer the Dixie Fire burned more than 950,000 acres and 1,329 structures in California. It was the largest standalone fire in state history and the second largest fire of any type in state history. But there was a curious side-story to the Dixie Fire. A man named Gary Maynard, a former sociology professor who taught criminology classes, was accused of setting multiple fires nearby which potentially could have trapped firefighters trying to fight the Dixie Fire. He was discovered at the scene of one fire because his car got stuck:

A Forest Service fire investigator determined the Cascade Fire was likely the result of arson. He also noticed that on a dirt road 150 to 200 yards from the fire, a man was struggling to free his car, a black Kia Soul, after the vehicle’s rear had failed to clear a partially buried boulder.

A witness told investigators that the man, later identified as Maynard, had arrived several hours before the fire started, court records show. The witness said the man had walked off in the direction of where the fire eventually ignited, returning around 10 minutes later. After the man returned, the witness recalled, smoke from the Cascade Fire became visible.

The investigator kept his distance from Maynard, citing the man’s “uncooperative and agitated behavior.” But he took a picture of his car, and the license plate number led to Maynard.

The tread from his tires helped investigators connect him to several other fires in the area. Forest Service Special Agents were so concerned they put a tracker on Maynard’s car and were following him and putting out fires soon after he started them. Back in August, Maynard was only charged with starting one fire, the Ranch Fire, but  it was expected more charges might be forthcoming. Today a grand jury indicted Maynard with starting four fires:

Gary Stephen Maynard, 47, of San Jose faces up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for each count of arson to federal property, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.

The indictment charges Maynard with setting four fires over the course of two weeks in July and August, including the Cascade and Everitt fires, and the Ranch and Conard fires set on in Lassen County. He has also been linked, but not charged, in connection to the Moon Fire, which ignited in Lassen County during the same time period.

Maynard’s attorney told CNN, “Dr. Maynard denies all the charges in the indictment. He will do so formally at a hearing next week.” Good luck with that. What the hell was Maynard doing at the scene of all of these fires just before they started? I think the defense is going to have a hard time making that into a giant coincidence.

Incredibly, Maynard isn’t he only person charged with setting fires during one of the worst wildfire seasons in state history. Alexandra Souverneva has also been charged for starting the Fawn Fire. You may remember her unusual explanation of why she was at the scene of the fire:

Asked why she was in the area, Souverneva said she’d been hiking, attempting to get to Canada, according to the report. Along the way, she said she became thirsty and found a puddle of water containing what she believed to be bear urine, according to the report.

Souverneva said she unsuccessfully tried to filter the water with a tea bag, according to the narrative. Then she attempted to make a fire to boil the water, but found it was “too wet for the fire to start,” the report said.

According to the report, “she said she drank the water anyway and then continued walking uphill from the creek bed,” where she saw smoke and airplanes “dropping pink stuff.” After that, Souverneva got stuck in the brush and ultimately contacted fire department personnel to assist her, said the report.

As I pointed out at the time, Souverneva was in northern California, more than 600 miles from the Canadian border so it would have been a very long hike. Also the detail about drinking water contaminated with bear urine was pretty creative.

These cases seem so bizarre to me. Who would want to start a potentially deadly wildfire? But it does make you wonder how common this is. Some of these large fires were pretty clearly set off by shorts in power lines, but I wonder how many of them over the past few years have had human help and the arsonist just weren’t caught.

This local news report has a photo of Maynard: