Wildfire

To the annals of stupid but lucky criminals, let us inscribe the name Matthew Riser, age 57 — and not the brightest star in the sky.

Riser was pulled over by Coconino County Sheriff’s deputies on June 12 near the forest outside Flagstaff. Riser’s white pickup truck matched the description of a vehicle spotted fleeing the scene of the Pipeline Fire, which had sparked up that morning.

Riser, nothing if not honest, admitted to deputies he’d camped overnight in the forest and relieved himself in the woods. He told the cops he had overlooked the numerous “no campfires” signs in the area and “had burned his (toilet) paper at noon yesterday and didn’t think it would smolder all night.”

One can only imagine Riser’s surprise when he woke up to what arrest documents described as quite a scene: a “200 foot by 200 foot fire, everything was on fire including the pine trees.”

The Pipeline Fire would consume nearly 27,000 acres of Arizona forest land over the next two weeks. More than 2,000 families were forced to evacuate.

Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency in Coconino County, while 740 fire crews from across the country fought the blaze, along with hundreds of hotshots, fire vehicles, bulldozers and air tankers. One week in, the cost of the Pipeline Fire was estimated at $11 million and rising.

If Riser seems a tad unlucky thus far, he got a few breaks soon enough. Like at charging time, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office pressed forward with only three counts, all misdemeanors: use of prohibited fire, using federal lands as a residence, and possession of marijuana.

The weed charge, a Class A misdemeanor under federal law, was later dropped. The other charges were Class B misdemeanors.

Riser struck a plea deal on July 13: He pleaded guilty to the fire-starting charge and in return he got one year of probation and a special assessment of $10. Riser’s fine was waived because Judge Camille Bibles found he “does not have the ability to pay a fine.”

And out of court and into infamy Matthew Riser walked.

The whole episode calls to mind the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which burned more than 460,000 acres back in 2002. That blaze, the second worst in Arizona history, was ignited by two idiots named Leonard Gregg and Valinda Jo Elliott.

Gregg, a part-time wildland firefighter, set the Rodeo Fire on purpose because he needed the wages he’d earn fighting it. Elliott, riding a quad on the White Mountain Apache reservation, broke down and got lost in the woods. On her third day wandering, she spotted a news helicopter. The signal fire Elliott started to get the chopper pilot’s attention became the Chediski Fire.

Gregg faced criminal prosecution for arson. He ended up serving nine years of a 10-year prison sentence. It’s safe to assume he’s still working on the $27.9 million restitution order by the court.

Elliott escaped criminal prosecution because, like Riser, she didn’t intend to cause all that damage. Even so, the White Mountain Apache Tribe pursued Elliott in federal court for a decade.

Eventually, the Tribe’s court found Elliott owed $57 million in restitution, of which she has surely never paid a thin dime.

Famously, Arizona has a “stupid motorist law” forcing morons who drive across flooded roads to pay the cost of their own rescue. I’d like to propose Matthew’s Law to hold stupid fire starters accountable for their havoc. I get Riser didn’t mean to burn down the forest, but come on.

Should people who start forest fires be made to face serious consequences? Does a bear — and sometimes an idiot — (expletive) in the woods?