RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Authorities on Thursday filed murder and arson charges carrying the death penalty against a man suspected of setting a Southern California wildfire last week that killed five firefighters.
The suspect, Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, was already under arrest on suspicion of setting two other wildfires over the summer.
The blaze was the deadliest for firefighters since July 1994, when 14 were killed near Glenwood Springs, Colo., according to the National Interagency Fire Center statistics.
Prosecutors charged Oyler with five counts of murder, 11 counts of arson and 10 counts of use of an incendiary device. The charges include seven fires in June, one in July, one in September and two in October.
District Attorney-elect Rod Pacheco said Oyler will also face two so-called special circumstances, one alleging murders committed during arson and another alleging multiple murders.
Authorities did not immediately disclose a motive. Oyler was scheduled to make a court appearance later Thursday.
The charges are punishable by life in prison without parole or the death penalty. Authorities will decide in the next 60 days which sentence to seek, Pacheco said.
"The feelings of the surviving family members of the victims will be consulted and be given great weight by our office in what is always a difficult decision," he said.
A woman who answered the phone at the home of Oyler's mother said she had no comment.
The fire was stoked by Santa Ana winds as it swept southwest through the San Jacinto Mountains west of Palm Springs. The flames overran the fire crew, destroyed 34 homes and charred more than 60 square miles before being contained Monday.
Three firefighters died at the scene, and a fourth died soon after at a hospital. A fifth was taken off life support and died this week.
Investigators interviewed Oyler on Oct. 27, served a search warrant on his residence Monday, then arrested him Tuesday.
"This arrest really does help with some of the closure, the healing that we in the Forest Service community, and in the families, need," said Jeanne Wade Evans, the San Bernardino National Forest supervisor.
California court records show Oyler was convicted in September 2001 of possession of a controlled substance.
In Joplin, Mo., police and court records show Oyler had mostly minor run-ins with the law from 1997 through 1999. The most severe was a 1999 misdemeanor charge of violating a protection order by entering his wife's apartment while she was out. The couple divorced in 2001.