A firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service has been arrested and charged with arson for allegedly starting three fires in Los Padres National Forest that burned more than 800 acres and cost about $2.5 million to fight. Surveillance video, witnesses and an electronic tracker reportedly point to his role in the fires.
Craig Matthew Underwood, 31, was arrested Tuesday at his home on Arroyo Seco Road in Greenfield and arraigned in U.S. District Court in San Jose on Wednesday. Underwood pleaded not guilty to three counts of arson on federal lands. He is being held in Santa Clara County Jail on $150,000 bail.
Underwood's landlord, Jack Franscioni, of Soledad, said Wednesday he was shocked to hear about the arrest.
"My god, a kid like that," Franscioni said. "He struck me as an all-American boy."
Underwood lived in one of Franscioni's cabins in the Arroyo Center, a colony of about 60 cabins near Arroyo Seco. All three fires Underwood is accused of starting began near his home, a fact Franscioni noted. There were never any problems with Underwood, he said, and the young firefighter often tended to the Franscioni's next-door summer cabin.
Underwood had been under surveillance since mid-August, following a small fire 18 days after a similar fire, together burning about 14 acres.
A video camera watched Underwood's driveway as well as the road at Piney Creek/Ridge, according to the affidavit for a search warrant of Underwood's home. A global positioning tracker was authorized by court and placed on his red Toyota pickup on Sept. 8.
On Sept. 22, around 7:30 p.m., a fire was reported at the Arroyo Seco day-use area. Initially, the fire was about 5 acres wide, but grew to encompass 786 acres over four days. Nine hand crews, 17 fire engines, two bulldozers, five helicopters, four air tankers and four helicopter tankers -- a total of 250 firefighters -- battled the blaze that spread into the Ventana Wilderness, 20 miles west of King City. Five injuries, four heat-related, were reported.
"The three fires share similar characteristics, indicating the same person likely ignited them," the affidavit reads. "All three fires started near barely used campfire rings, in areas where campfire rings are rarely, if ever, observed. Two of the three fires were lighted during periods of high humidity, when it is very rare for fires to accidently or spontaneously start... All three fires were near the same road. And the fires all occurred only a few miles apart in a period of less than two months."
Underwood helped respond to all three fires.
When questioned about his whereabouts at the time investigators speculate the fires were started, he is believed to have lied.
"Underwood's statements to us are contradicted by information from surveillance videos, the GPS electronic tracking device, and statements he made to others," the affidavit said.
Campers told authorities they saw Underwood's truck in the area of fire the evening before the first fire was reported. Video cameras at the Fort Hunter Ligget main gate observed Underwood's truck entering the evening before the first fire was reported and departing the next morning.
On Sept. 22, Underwood said he was away, in King City, Salinas and Greenfield, shopping, but the electronic tracking device found that he never drove to Salinas, nor do the times he said he was in Greenfield correspond to the tracking device's records. Video surveillance on his home observed him walking at least twice to the area where the Sept. 22 fire reportedly began. Investigators also believe they will find inside Underwood's home a glass marble with a green swirl that was removed by an unauthorized, unknown person from the site of the origin of the Sept. 22 fire, along with boots that may match the footprints left behind.
No motive was revealed in the affidavit, but investigators wrote that it was not uncommon for firefighters to set fires for financial gain and to observe fire behavior.
The maximum penalty for arson on federal lands is five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.