Man Gets 5 Years for Starting Joshua Tree Park Fire

This Monday, March 26, 2018 photo provided by Steve Raines shows a fire that broke out at Joshua Tree National Park, damaging a historical landmark. The National Park Service says the fire that broke out late Monday damaged the Oasis of Mara, a site settled by Native Americans who planted the 29 palm trees that inspired the name of the city of Twentynine Palms. (Steve Raines Photography via AP)

(CN) – A federal judge on Monday sentenced a man who used a lighter to start a fire in Joshua Tree National Park this year to five years in federal prison.

Authorities arrested George William Graham, 26, of Twentynine Palms, California, this past March on suspicion of setting a fire that damaged several palm trees at the Oasis of Mara, a historic site near Joshua Tree National Park’s visitor center.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real sentenced Graham to five years in federal prison and ordered him to pay $21,019 in restitution to the National Park Service.

A park ranger found Graham watching the fire burn. He admitted to police he started the blaze, according to a criminal complaint.

Authorities said they found Graham in a parking lot the day before the fire taking photos of patrol vehicles. Fire investigators said they found a black lighter within 50 yards of where the blaze started and that’s what Graham said he used to ignite a palm frond. Rangers also said shoe prints in the area matched the shoes Graham was wearing at the time he was arrested.

The fire burned less than an acre.

Graham pleaded guilty to a felony charge of unlawfully setting a fire and in a plea agreement he admitted to starting the fire that “grew to approximately 9,989 square feet, and destroyed numerous grasses, bushes, palm trees, vegetation, and other items of significance within the Oasis of Mara.”

An arson parolee, Graham has had previous run-ins with both the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department and the National Park Service.

The Serrano tribe first settled the oasis now known as Twentynine Palms and called it Mara, meaning “the place of little springs and much grass.” According to legend, they were told to settle there because they would have many male children, and planted a palm for each of the 29 boys born during their first year there.

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