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Firefighter gets 5 years in prison for setting 30 fires

Benjamin Cunha admitted setting dozens of fires in an attempt to earn overtime pay and impress his peers

The San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A firefighter who admitted setting dozens of fires in an attempt to earn overtime pay and impress his peers was sentenced Tuesday to five years in prison for arson, the U.S. attorney said.

Benjamin Cunha, 33, of Placerville (El Dorado County), pleaded guilty in October in U.S District Court in Sacramento to one count of arson for lighting the 80-acre Mine Fire in 2007 while he was a volunteer firefighter in Diamond Springs, near his home. He was sentenced by District Judge John Mendez after a plea deal reached in return for his cooperation.

“This defendant set a multitude of fires with a callous disregard for the danger to life and property that he was inflicting,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. Five years “is a just result that takes a serial arsonist off the streets.”

The sentence spared Cunha a more lengthy sentence had he been convicted of several other fires he admitted setting or was suspected of lighting, including two blazes during the summer of 2013.

He had previously served a 365-day jail sentence, which allowed him to work during the day, after he confessed to using a time-delay incendiary device to light at least 30 wildland fires in El Dorado and Amador counties during the summers of 2006 and 2007. Cunha finished his probation for those arsons in 2012.

Cunha, who had worked from 2001 to 2003 as a seasonal firefighter for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, was also ordered to pay $246,862 in restitution for the cost of fighting the Mine Fire, which burned onto national forest land on July 6, 2007. The U.S. attorney said the arsons caused $7 million in damage.

Given that his earlier conviction had not ended the arson activity, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives worked with the U.S. attorney to bring the federal charges.

“Cunha had no consideration for Cal Fire fighters’ safety when he set the fires, placing them in grave danger during the fire suppression efforts,”said Jill Snyder, the special agent in charge of the investigation.

Cunha’s apparent obsession with lighting fires was outlined in the sentencing memorandum, which described how he developed and built a time-delay device that he used specifically in dry grass during high winds.

“His goal was to create fires big enough that significant firefighting resources would be required to extinguish the fires,” the document says. “Two of Cunha’s stated goals were to impress his fellow firefighters with his skill in fighting the very fires he started, and to accrue overtime pay.”

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