Juvenile charged with felony arson in Willow Fire

A boy who allegedly started the Willow Fire by playing with a lighter was charged with two felonies Tuesday and detained in juvenile hall until his next court appearance.

Madera County District Attorney David Linn said the two felony charges are for arson, and negligently causing a fire, which combined hold a maximum penalty of about five years in state incarceration.

Linn said he argued at Tuesday’s hearing, in the juvenile division of Madera County Superior Court, that the boy needed to be detained to protect residents of Eastern Madera County.

“Detaining the minor in juvenile hall would protect the people in Eastern Madera County from the possibility of him setting further fires,” Linn said. “It also ensures he will be available for his upcoming court appearances.”

The minor’s public defender entered denial pleas, Linn said, which are similar to pleading not guilty.

Linn added he argued the boy should receive “significant psychological counseling” for his actions.

“I believe juvenile arson is an emotional disorder responsible for at least 40% of all wildfires in the United States,” Linn said.

The minor will next appear in juvenile court on Aug. 26, with a jursidictional hearing, effectively the same as a trial, scheduled for Aug. 28. No bail is allowed in juvenile cases, meaning the boy is “going nowhere,” Linn said.

On Saturday, July 25, the minor was allegedly in an area between North Fork and Bass Lake, took a lighter from a tool kit in his family’s car, and set some pine branches ablaze.

After the branches dropped to the ground, flames burst out in extremely dry vegetation and eventually exploded into the 5,702-acre Willow Fire that forced evacuation for hundreds of homes and cost an estimated more than $20 million to contain.

The boy reportedly yelled for help, and his family tried to put the fire out while dialing 911.

Teenage arsonist on house arrest

On Monday, a 15-year-old arsonist, sentenced to probation for intentionally starting 13 fires in the Oakhurst area last year, was put on house arrest after he violated his court orders by taking pictures of the Willow Fire.

Linn said evidence showed the boy violated Judge James Oakley’s Nov. 21 court order to stay away from fires, refrain from taking pictures of them, and other restrictions.

The teenager, in close proximity to the Willow Fire, allegedly took pictures of the inferno then shared them on social media, Linn said. He was placed on house arrest with electronic monitoring and remanded to the custody of his father and grandmother.

The Eastern Madera County teenager, who is home schooled, will return to court Aug. 28, the same day a jurisdictional hearing, or effective trial, is scheduled to begin for the boy who allegedly started the 5,702-acre Willow Fire.

The identities of both boys will not be released given their status as juveniles, Linn said.

Linn said his office is also attempting to set up psychological counseling for the teenager, which he argued in court Tuesday was needed for the alleged Willow Fire starter.