Given that California faces many wildfires every year, with many of them resulting in destructive damage and loss of life, it is important to understand the laws that the state has enacted with regards to committing arson. This is not to say that all wildfires are started deliberately by an individual, but to do so is an offence. According to California Penal Code 451, willfully and maliciously setting fire to a forest, building, or other structure/property is defined as arson, and leads to serious punishments. There are also different sections of the penal code that relate to arson, as the crime can occur in various contexts, with different effects, and varying intents.
It is important for the prosecutor to prove that the act was willful and malicious. Therefore, the defendant must have deliberately intended to commit an unlawful act in order to defraud or injure. For example, this can be proven if the defendant was to have been aware that their actions would lead to specific unlawful consequences. If it is reasonable for the average person to know that setting a house on fire will lead to destruction of that house, and the individual still sets the house on fire, that is a malicious act. However, if the prosecution fails to prove that the defendant acted willfully and maliciously, there is a lower arson charge that can apply, which is reckless arson (under Penal Code 452).
While there are many punishments, this article will focus on the most common ones that are served. Arson, depending on its context, can either be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. If the defendant commits arson by damaging property, they face a felony conviction that carries a sentence of three years in state prison. If the property was an inhabited structure, the sentence increases to eight years. However, if the act of arson causes great bodily injury, the punishment is much more severe, and increases to nine years in a state prison. If someone is falsely accused of committing arson, there are some defences that can be used to argue for their innocence, including proving that the fire was an accident.