Inside the hunt for a wildfire arsonist
Hundreds of California’s wildfires are set on purpose, and the arsonists who start them are rarely caught. This is how CAL Fire caught one of them.
In the early hours of Sept. 22, 2006, P.J. Phillips was awakened by a phone call from his parents. Phillips' sheep ranch in the Capay Valley — a rural stretch of walnut orchards northwest of Sacramento — was on fire.
"You could hear the grass burning," Phillips said. "The snap, crackle, pop." By the next morning, everything had burned. Phillips lost 270 sheep. The fire cost the Yolo County ranch thousands of dollars, and about a week later, a local sheriff discovered a second fire in almost the exact same spot.
P.J. Phillips was raised with wildfires. When the winter rains stop in California the state becomes a tinderbox and, as climate change accelerates, the resulting wildfires are getting worse. Most of them are started by accident, but there was something different about the way the fires on Phillips' ranch started. A few weeks after his sheep burned, Phillips received a call from the local district attorney, who told him that both fires had been started on purpose.
He was shocked. "Who would do something so demented as to set something on fire?" he said.
A valley with a fire problem
Nobody really knows how many wildfires are started by arsonists, in California or anywhere else. Cal Fire says arsonists set around 7 percent of the state’s wildfires. Other studies suggest they set about 20 percent. According to multiple arson investigators and profilers, many wildland arsonists feel frustrated by their lives or shortchanged. Setting fires can be a way for them to regain control or exert control over others.
Wildland arsonists also tend to set a lot of fires, operating for years before they’re caught. "I would say that at some points in time, I was probably working over 20 arson cases," said Alan Carlson, a former Cal Fire investigator who has helped solve wildland arson cases around the country.
Carlson oversaw Operation High Desert, the team of investigators that eventually tracked down the arsonist who burned P.J. Phillips' sheep in 2006. That case is now considered one of California's exemplary wildland arson investigations.
Before they caught the man who burned Phillips' sheep, most people in the Capay Valley didn’t think they had a fire problem. In the '90s, the majority of the fires in the area were small. But as the years went by, there were more and more of them. By 2004, there were about 10 times more fires in the Capay Valley than there used to be. Then later that year, a fire outside town engulfed an area bigger than San Francisco. The cause was undetermined, but many suspected arson.
That's when Alan Carlson and his team, Operation High Desert, got involved in the case. Their first step was figuring out how the Capay Valley arsonist liked to set his fires. Many serial wildland arsonists jerry-rig household items into incendiary devices, and in some cases, they're built with a time-delay, so that the fire doesn't start until after the arsonist is far away. It's one of the reasons serial arsonists are so hard to catch.
Cal Fire investigators combed through the Capay Valley's burn sites looking for any evidence the arsonist may have left behind. And in 2005, local investigators found a brittle piece of material that curved in the shape of a "C." It was part of a small, flat coil — every fire investigator interviewed for this story requested that KQED not describe it in further detail. Carlson said it's one of the most dangerous arsonist's devices he's ever found.
When the coil burns, it rarely leaves any trace of itself behind. "As they smolder down," Carlson explained, "the ash drops off the coil like a cigarette ash and mixes in with what will become burned later on."
The coil can also take up to four hours to actually start a fire, giving the arsonist plenty of time to get away. It's like a murder weapon where the trigger isn't pulled until the killer is in another state. Then in most cases, it erases itself, deleting any evidence that it was there.
The coil confirmed a suspicion that Carlson and the High Desert Team had from the very beginning. Whoever designed it had a feel for fire and how it works. That meant the Capay Valley arsonist could be a local firefighter.
A dedicated fire captain
When it comes to wildfires, firefighter arsonists are more common than you might think. According to multiple retired arson investigators, roughly one-third of the wildland arsonists they arrested worked in emergency services.
Toward the end of 2005, a full year into the Cal Fire team’s investigation, Carlson started combing through two decades of reports from the Capay Valley's fires. He was looking for firefighters who responded to the fires a little too quickly, the cars that always seemed to pass by a hillside a few hours before it caught fire. And one name kept popping up: Bob Eason Jr.
Eason joined the Capay Valley's volunteer Fire Department when he was 18 and he loved it. If there was a car accident, chances are it was Eason's voice that the volunteers heard over the radio, directing paramedics to the crash scene. By the time Carlson and the High Desert investigation team started closing in on him as a suspect, Eason had been promoted to fire captain.
According to Carlson, the fires in the Capay Valley started burning right after Eason and his family moved to the area, and they tended to happen whenever Eason's life took a turn for the worse. There was a flurry of fires after Eason lost his job at the ambulance company and an uptick in fires when his son was colicky. Eason used to drive through the Capay Valley's back roads in the middle of the night until his baby fell asleep. Carlson suspects he lit fires as he went.
Beginning in June 2006, Carlson and his team of investigators began conducting surveillance of the Capay Valley area. They staked out a dozen different locations for months. Their investigation also relied on roadside cameras, and one of them caught Robert Eason driving suspiciously close to several fire scenes. In August 2006, the team received clearance from a judge to sneak a tracker onto Eason's car. It showed Eason driving suspiciously close to a fire scene later that night.
On Sept. 21, 2006, at around midnight, the tracker showed Eason driving past a large hill, then turning around and driving by it again. The hillside started to burn a few hours later. This was the fire that killed P.J. Phillips' sheep.
It is one of the most damaging fires that Eason is accused of starting and it was also one of the last. A few weeks after the fire, Carlson's team arrested Eason and searched his house and car. They didn't find anything at first. Then in the trash, beneath a pile of dirty diapers, they found two coils ready to go.
Eason was accused of lighting 16 fires in three months and he was suspected of starting a lot more than that. During the investigation, Carlson produced a detailed map of the Valley's suspicious fires over the past two decades. He now believes that Eason set 152 fires over the course of 18 years.
"In his mind, he was the hero every time"
Eason's arrest shocked many of the volunteer firefighters in his department. That included members of his family. Eason's father, Bob Eason Sr., was once a fire captain in the San Francisco Bay Area. When the family moved to the Capay Valley, he and his son had joined the local volunteer fire department together.
Eason Sr. remembers the day his son was arrested. He received a call from an agitated neighbor. "'Bob, there must be 15 [police] cars around your house!'" he remembers her saying. When Eason Sr. arrived at their family's home, three or four officers approached him. They were friendly enough and asked if he was aware of his son's activities.
"I said, 'Of course I wasn't aware of it,' " Eason Sr. recalled saying. "And you know, I think [if] anything like that was going on, I would know about it."
It's hard for him to admit this now, but Eason Sr.'s first thought was that his son might be guilty. He and his son are close and always have been, but their relationship is complicated.
When Eason Jr. was born, Eason Sr. thought it was a given that he would become a firefighter like him. "We bought him firetrucks, and he would play firetrucks with his little hat," he said. But it quickly became clear Eason Jr. was different. He may have had learning disabilities — his father recalls that he couldn't pay attention in school — and his hands tend to shake when he feels stressed or emotional.
So Eason Sr. steered his son away from the fire academy, which requires focus and test-taking skills. His son ignored him and tried to do any firefighting work he could. He bounced from job to job, working as an ambulance driver and an EMT — jobs that involve saving lives.
Eason Sr. suspects his son wanted to be a hero. "If you listen to his stories, I like to say that the stories are always different but the hero's always the same," he said. "I think in his mind he was a hero, every time."
'It makes no sense'
Eason Sr. doesn't think his son is the hero of this story, but he doesn't think he's the villain either. He now believes his son is innocent. There are still a few lingering questions in this case, he said, and investigators were too single-minded to notice them.
Take the coils, for instance. Local investigators found evidence of them at multiple fire scenes, but Cal Fire investigator Alan Carlson and his team never found evidence of them at any of the fires that Eason Jr. was actually convicted of starting.
To Carlson and his team, of course, this makes sense: The whole reason the coil is so dangerous is that it often erases itself. But this lack of evidence at some of the fire scenes drives Eason Sr. crazy.
"They're saying, 'Well, because we couldn't find any evidence that he did it, therefore he had to have done it,' " he says. "It makes no sense."
That didn't bother the jury at Eason Jr.'s trial. He was found guilty in October 2008 of 12 counts of arson. The judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison, which Eason Sr. argues is a disproportionate punishment for what his son is accused of. The 12 fires Eason Jr. was actually convicted of starting didn't really hurt anyone beyond farmer Phillips' sheep. Some of the fires were as small as your average bedroom.
California's 'frequent flyers' who ignite fires
Eason Sr. left the Capay Valley after the trial. He gave up his walnut orchard years ago and traded it in for a house in a quiet town north of Chico: Paradise, California.
The Camp Fire there killed 85 people in November 2018. Tens of thousands were displaced, and Eason Sr. was one of them. He said he plans to move back to Paradise as soon as he can.
He wasn't home when the Camp Fire started, but in a crazy coincidence, the man who put his son in prison was close enough to smell the smoke. Fire investigator Alan Carlson lives in Chico now and he awoke to a volcanic black cloud spreading through the sky.
"I went down to the end of the street to get a better look," he recalled. "I figured at some point in the process, I'd probably be investigating the fire." He was right. Carlson retired from Cal Fire and has now been hired by one of the many potential plaintiffs who may sue PG&E.
PG&E experienced an unexplained power outage right before the Camp Fire started, and some survivors say their homes burned down because of the company's neglected and faulty equipment. Like the arsonists that Carlson spent years tracking, he said, some of the corporations that start fires also tend to start a lot of them.
"There are certain industries out there that seem to be inherently frequent flyers when it comes to igniting fires," Carlson said. While many of those fires aren't due to criminal negligence, plenty of them could be. Cal Fire investigators found evidence that PG&E had broken state laws in 11 wildfires in 2017. PG&E was also convicted for the deadly 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion.
Whether a fire is set by a person or a corporation, the work that goes into investigating it stays more or less the same. Carlson and his team learned a lot from the two long years it took them to catch one troubled fire captain in the Capay Valley. Their investigation was exhaustive, and Carlson said it relied on a range of surveillance and forensic techniques that Cal Fire had not combined to that extent before.
It's one of many cases that helped set a new investigative standard at the agency, which Carlson and other investigators said Cal Fire will bring with it as it looks into the Camp Fire and other disasters.
Carlson has spent weeks in the Camp Fire wreckage, trudging uphill through the mud with his gear bag. "It was just miserable," he said. "The winds were blowing almost constantly, dust flying, ash flying."
If he learned one thing from the Capay Valley case, he said, it's that this kind of meticulous work pays off. The Capay Valley burned last year and it burned the year before that, but according to Cal Fire, the actual number of wildfires in the region has dropped since Bob Eason Jr. went to prison.
This story was originally published by KQED and aired on the California Report Magazine.