Rumors of arson have spread as fast as the Apple Fire that has consumed more than 32,000 acres in Southern California—despite authorities saying the likely cause was a diesel-fueled vehicle emitting burning carbon from its exhaust.
Emma Riley, 22, whose family owns apple and berry orchards in Oak Glen, told The Epoch Times she witnessed a suspicious event on July 31, the day the fire started. She saw four teenage boys with lighters and what appeared to be a can of lighter fluid huddled in the tall brush off a trail near the Oak Glen School Museum on Oak Glen Road.
The fire is blazing off Oak Glen Road and Apple Tree Lane, north of Cherry Valley; authorities say it started as three smaller spot fires before merging into one blaze.
“I could see that they had what looked like two little cigarette lighters and then a black can of some sort. It was a rectangular can … and it appeared to be lighter fluid,” Riley said.
Riley had towed a horse trailer to the area to help some friends move their horses. She walked past the boys once, but as she walked back to her trailer, she noticed flames.
“When I saw the flames, I said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing back there?’ and they told me to mind my own business.” They continued yelling at her, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. She yelled back, “I’m going to call 911,” and she did.
The boys ran, jumped in a black Chevy Silverado pickup truck and sped off. Before they did, Riley photographed the truck and the license plate.
Cindy Bachman, a public information officer for the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, told The Epoch Times via email on Aug. 9, “The fire had already started at the time of her [Riley’s] call, and when the deputy made contact with the boys, the boys did not have any lighter fluid in their possession. It is my understanding that the fire officials do not believe the fire was intentional.”
But Riley had followed up with police in Yucaipa—Oak Glen has a population of only about 700, and Yucaipa is the closest city—on Aug. 6, and she heard a different story. She said they told her the four boys had been found with lighters and lighter fluid.
Police told Riley they did not suspect the boys of arson, because they confessed to smoking marijuana wax, and that would explain why they hid in the brush and then ran. It’s illegal in California for anyone under the age of 21 to possess marijuana wax.
Riley and others in the region haven’t dismissed their suspicions about the boys and the general possibility of arson. Though the fire had already started when she spotted the boys, Riley doesn’t feel that rules out the possibility they had started the spot fires and were trying to start another. Or that they were part of a group of people starting fires in different places.
Other locals have reported suspicious activity in the area around the time the fires started.
Though a malfunctioning diesel-fueled vehicle driving down Oak Glen Road on July 31 has been pegged as the likely cause, authorities have not found the vehicle and are still seeking information about it, according to Fernando Herrera, a public information officer and fire captain for Riverside County Fire Department, who spoke to The Epoch Times on Aug. 5.
Uncertainty about the vehicle as well as the reports from locals of suspicious events on July 31 have fueled arson rumors that continue to rage through social media.
On Aug. 5, at a community meeting in Banning, Calif., Riley’s great uncle, Jim Riley, brought up the issue of previous arson fires in the region. “In 2009, there was an arson fire, and the kid never paid the penalty for it, so the community is a little sensitive about arson for a reason,” he said.
Daron Wyatt, a public information officer for the inter-agency team working on the fires, spoke at the meeting. He said he has been inundated with calls from news reporters asking about residents’ reports of possible arson suspects. Riley’s report has been of particular interest, but it seems authorities were largely unaware of it ahead of making the Aug. 3 announcement that the diesel vehicle was the likely culprit.
Wyatt said the rumors were raised at a meeting of every law enforcement agency in the region, and none were aware of a report about the four teenagers with lighters. “Nobody knows what they are talking about,” he said.
Before Bachman of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department had tracked down the report on Riley’s call and replied to The Epoch Times about it on Aug. 9, she had initially responded Aug. 5 that Yucaipa Lt. Julie Landen said no such report existed.
Capt. Herrera also said Aug. 5 he was unaware of any related police report.
Riley was shocked to learn authorities had no knowledge of the incident she witnessed, so on Aug. 6, she went to the Yucaipa Police Department and made a full statement. It was then that police told her the four boys were found with lighters and lighter fluid, but that no further investigation would be pursued, she said.
Another Yucaipa-area resident who preferred not to be named told The Epoch Times he saw two boys running from the same area the evening the fires started.
Mark Miller, a retired Cal Fire captain, told the Epoch Times on Aug. 7 that there have been other rumors among local residents, some of whom don’t know each other, that arson suspects were seen throwing burning materials from vehicles.
“The whole thing is suspicious,” Miller said. “They saw people throwing incendiary devices out from vehicles and so, yeah, it’s just awfully suspicious,” he said.
Dennis Riley, Emma Riley’s grandfather, said he is frustrated with the lack of transparency, and the “Let’s move along people; there’s nothing to see here” attitude.
“We’ve had a number of arson fires up here over the years. You know, they always in the past have said ‘We’re investigating the cause of the fire,’ or ‘Arson is suspected,’ but all of a sudden it’s like they’re not even interested in four kids with lighters. It’s strange,” he said.
Social Media Firestorm
When Cal Fire posted its media release on Facebook saying a diesel-fueled vehicle is the likely cause, a comment on Facebook read, “What happened to the 4 kids in the area with gasoline and lighters.”
Wyatt has taken media calls during the fire, and he has urged everyone, including news media, to follow the San Bernardino National Forest Facebook and Twitter pages for official reports, “rather than spinning it up on social media.”
“A lot of times somebody sees something that they perceive in a certain way, and they’ll put it out there on social media, and it will then run faster than this fire has run,” Wyatt said at the Aug. 5 meeting.
He said that authorities have to be cautious about what information they release to the public. “In the beginning stages … all we can tell you is that the cause is under investigation … so sometimes that goes against the grain of what we want to do in providing accurate information, but we can’t compromise the investigation and a possible prosecution if it is arson,” he said.
The Riley family owns more than 400 acres of orchards, including Riley’s Apple Farm, and another 700 acres of property in the Oak Glen area. The Rileys have been the target of scathing social media posts in recent months.
Jim Riley has made comments on social media that he says have been misconstrued as racist and he’s been the target of “cancel culture,” he said. He’s also received what he feels are real threats against him and his family.
After the fire department announced the probable cause of the fire, local BLM supporter Jessie Pearl Labrie wrote on her Facebook page: “Oh good. Was hoping I wasnt gonna get a knock on the door. I openly said that I hope Riley’s burns down. Glad to know it’s God Himself condemning the farm. That’s way cooler than arson.”
In a private Facebook group called The Back Porch, Labrie had posted in late June: “I honestly hope they burn down Racist Riley’s.” She also posted “DRAG HIM” with a GIF that said “KILL HIM!” followed by the comment “Don’t kill him actually though.”
On Twitter, @Jadecruzz, whose profile included a reference to BLM, wrote on Aug. 1, “Would be a shame if that fire BURNED DOWN Riley’s Farm in Oak Glen after being exposed a few weeks back.” The Twitter account has since been deactivated.
When asked if local police had investigated social media posts that some perceive as threats against Jim Riley or his family, Bachman told The Epoch Times that police will only investigate what they determine to be credible threats.
“I think if we focused on comments made on social media, we wouldn’t get any other work done,” Bachman said. “There is so much of this and a lot of it is nonsense—people just sitting in their house with nothing else to do and making comments—not making threats—making comments.”
BLM protesters in nearby Yucaipa on Aug. 1 said they heard they were being blamed for the fires. “They claimed that we started the fire in Cherry Valley. That did not happen,” protest organizer Steph Marie Murphy told The Epoch Times. “None of us are attacking anyone.”
Tensions have been high between BLM supporters and some Yucaipa residents following clashes between the two on June 1.
Emma Riley said she felt it important to report to police what she saw out of concern for the safety of local families, their animals, and livelihood.
Many in the community came together to help each other out.
Cherry Valley resident Lynn Warren said neighbors arrived with a horse trailer to rescue her animals on July 31. “I didn’t even call them. They just showed up,” Warren told The Epoch Times. “It was just cool that our neighbors all banded together and supported each other.”
The Apple Fire was 45 percent contained as of Aug. 10. It has damaged 12 structures, destroying four, including homes, and injured three people, including one firefighter, according to Cal Fire. More than 2,200 fire personnel and 40 firefighting crews have been assigned to fight the fire.