What Is Unlawfully Causing a Fire in California?

Being charged with unlawfully causing a fire is a serious affair. The charge broadly covers events where a defendant is accused of starting a fire in a malicious or reckless manner, and in which serious damage was done to property or people. This page will break down everything you need to know if you are ever charged with unlawfully causing a fire and how a skilled California attorney can defend you in court.

Requirements for Proof

CA Penal Code 452 PC is the statute that defines unlawfully causing a fire. These definitional requirements include:

  • The defendant set fire to, burned, or directly caused the burning of property, a structure, or forest land
  • The defendant did so in a reckless manner
  • The fire caused “great bodily injury” to another individual

All of these stipulations are specific and have limitations. For instance, you cannot be charged with unlawfully causing a fire if that fire doesn't directly injure another person.

Furthermore, “reckless”, as defined by the court, requires that the defendant act as though:

  • They had awareness of their surroundings
  • Knew that the actions would present an unjustifiable and substantial risk of causing a fire (i.e. the defendant had to know that the starter material is flammable)
  • Ignored that known risk
  • Knew that ignoring the risk was a “gross deviation” from what someone reasonable would do in the same situation

All of this results in a relatively high burden of proof to the prosecution. There are multiple potential ways in which a knowledgeable defense attorney can protect a defendant to avoid a conviction.

Additional Definitions

In addition to the above stipulations, certain factors must be proven before a court can convict someone of unlawfully causing a fire. These include:

  • “Set fire to or burn” – for this to be met, some part or all or something must be damaged by fire
  • “Great bodily injury” – this stands for significant or substantial physical injury, not mental or emotional, though these types can often be mixed

Furthermore, there are some instances in which a defendant cannot be charged with unlawfully causing a fire.

  • If the only things burned belonged to the defendant or were their personal property. There is an exception if intent to commit fraud is present or if the same fire damage is the property of another.
  • Unlawfully causing a fire is a distinct crime from arson, the latter of which requires a malicious and willful state of mind. This is opposed to “recklessness”. Arson is covered in California PC 451.


If convicted of unlawfully causing a fire, the defendant could face several different penalties. The basic version of this crime is classified as a misdemeanor. Potential penalties for this include:

  • a fine of up to $1000
  • imprisonment in county jail for up to six months

However, the court may also prove that reckless burning resulted in the destruction of forest land or another structure. If the fire also causes great bodily injury, the crime may be classified as a "wobbler" offense. This means it can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the prosecution.

If prosecuted as a felony, there are additional penalties that may be applied. These include:

  • for burning of forest land or a structure, up to 6 months in county jail for misdemeanors or 16 months/2 years/3 years in state prison for felonies
  • for burning an inhabited structure or property, up to a single year in county jail for misdemeanors or 2/3/4 years in state prison for felonies
  • for burning that causes great bodily injury, up to 1 year in county jail for misdemeanors or 2/4/6 years in state prison for misdemeanors

Possible Defenses

Fortunately, there are several defenses that skilled legal advocates can use to defend those accused of PC 452.

Recklessness Is Not Proven

A defense attorney can prove that the defendant did not act recklessly, thus disqualifying them from being convicted under the statutes of PC 452. If the defendant, for instance, did not know about a fire risk, they could not have been acting recklessly. Recklessness requires foreknowledge of the potential dangers.

Arrested Without Probable Cause

If the defendant was arrested without probable cause, skillful California legal defense can get the case thrown out. Probable cause is required for charges to be levied in the first place, and if it's proven that the police did not have probable cause, this could lead to freedom.

False Accusations

If the defendant did not cause the fire but was instead falsely accused, they may be able to escape punishment for a crime they did not commit.

Why You Need a Defense Attorney On Your Side

Regardless of the exact circumstances of your case, it always helps to have skilled a defense attorney on your side. The Law Office of Peter James Chambers is already waiting for your call and has the legal expertise to protect you from a conviction for unlawfully causing a fire. You can get a free case evaluation if you contact our office today!