A 26-year-old arson parolee was sentenced Monday in Los Angeles to five years behind bars and ordered to pay $21,000 in restitution for setting fire to historic trees and brush in the Oasis of Mara area of Joshua Tree National Park, which straddles the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert and offers sweeping views, including of the Coachella Valley and the high peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio.
George William Graham of Twentynine Palms started the Mar. 26 fire by igniting a palm frond with a cigarette lighter, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Graham was observed watching the blaze and admitted to law enforcement officers that he started the fire, which consumed a number of historic trees and other National Park Service lands and natural resources.
U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real sentenced Graham to the maximum term on the federal charge of unlawfully setting timber afire.
National Park Service Law Enforcement Rangers arrested Graham at the scene of the fire. He was known both to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and the National Park Service as a California arson parolee, with prior law-enforcement contacts with both state and federal authorities, according to court records.
Angela Viramontes, Graham's federal public defender, told the judge in June that her client has "significant" mental issues.
The fire, near the park's Oasis Visitor's Center, charred numerous trees, but no structures were damaged.
Called the "cornerstone" of the national park, the Oasis of Mara was first settled centuries ago by the Serrano people who named it Mara, meaning "the place of little springs and much grass." According to legend, the Serrano planted 29 palms, one for each boy that was born in the oasis during the first year of their residence.