Oscar Bustillos, 49, of Apple Valley, the man who allegedly started the Sept. 14 Courtney Fire, has been charged with one count of felony arson, for causing fire to inhabited structure/property (this includes an address list of the 30 homes destroyed), and two misdemeanor counts, one for unlawfully causing a fire, and the other for unlawful burning.
At his Nov. 25 arraignment before Madera County Superior Court Judge Joseph Soldani, Bustillos pleaded not guilty to all counts. His bail was set at $10,000, and he was back in court Tuesday, Jan. 6, when a pre-preliminary hearing was set for Feb. 13. Judge Soldani set a preliminary hearing for Feb. 20.
Cal Fire filed a criminal complaint with the county district attorney’s office on Nov. 17 concerning the fire, and Bustillos was arrested and booked four days later.
According to Cal Fire investigators, Bustillos set fire to a deer carcass to destroy it, resulting in a grass fire that quickly spread from Courtney Lane off Crane Valley Road (426), up a ravine to Bass Lake Heights, destroying 30 homes.
Bustillos, a non-English speaker, will be represented by Public Defender Kevin Weimer of Ciummo & Associates, a Madera law firm that contracts with the county for legal services.
According to Craig Collins, another attorney with Ciummo & Associates, Bustillos was working on an Oakhurst ranch at the time of the fire, and called Bustillos’ actions “an accident.”
“The ranch owner and his son had killed a deer and then went on vacation, leaving the deer carcass in the barn, so Bustillos decided to burn it because of the smell,” Collins said. “He (Bustillos) had cleared the area, had water on hand, and tried to put the fire out ... everyone would call this an accident, even Cal Fire. The DA’s position is that he was so reckless that it resulted in felonious conduct, in other words, he should have known better. This is a negligent-type thing. Once it’s determined what degree of recklessness he displayed, he will be charged with either a felony or misdemeanor accordingly.”
“What degree of culpability he is determined to have had will have an effect on what he is ultimately convicted of,” prosecutor and Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sally Moreno said.
“Accident implies not at all culpable or blameworthy, like when you have a lit match in your hand to light a cigarette and you drop it. There’s recklessness, and there’s lighting a fire on purpose and purposefully throwing lit objects about,” Moreno said.
“As currently charged,” Moreno added, “his maximum exposure (possible prison time) is four years. If he is convicted, restitution (financial) will very likely be ordered.”
Madera County District Attorney David Linn said he will look into the ramifications of a felony conviction in the case.
“I want to make sure the property owners who lost houses from this fire receive the maximum amount of money they deserve from the insurance companies,“ Linn said.
The estimated property loss was more than $12 million, and a Cal Fire spokesperson said it cost $4.4 million to suppress the fire.