Rumors of arson have spread as fast as the Apple Fire that has consumed more than 33,000 acres in Southern California—despite authorities saying the likely cause of the wildfire 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 House Museum on Oak Glen Road.
The fire is burning near 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.”
On Aug. 6, Riley had followed up with police in Yucaipa—Oak Glen has a population of only about 700, and Yucaipa is the closest city. She said they told her the four boys had been found with lighters and lighter fluid.
Police told Riley they didn’t 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.
But Riley and others in the region haven’t dismissed their suspicions about the boys and the general possibility of arson. Rumors of other locals having seen suspicious activity in the area around the time the fires started continue, and have gained traction on social media.
Dennis Riley, Emma Riley’s grandfather, told The Epoch Times he wonders how certain authorities are about the malfunctioning diesel-fueled vehicle as the source of the fire if they haven’t located the vehicle and are still seeking information about it.
Fernando Herrera, a public information officer and fire captain for Riverside County Fire Department, told The Epoch Times on Aug. 5 authorities have not located the vehicle. Witnesses reported seeing a vehicle shooting large particles out of its exhaust system on July 31.
Authorities had announced the probable cause of the fire on Aug. 3 and asked that anyone who may have seen the vehicle on Oak Glen Road that day call in with more information.
On Aug. 5, at a community meeting in Banning, Calif., the Oak Glen division chief for Cal Fire, Todd Hopkins, responded to a question from a local resident about how certain authorities are that it wasn’t arson.
Hopkins said the officers “are trained in arson investigation. They have taken numerous reports, and they said [there were] multiple witnesses to when the fire started.”
They are still looking for more information, Hopkins said: “If there’s something else that you might know, because you believe that’s not what the cause is, you can also call … and give them what information you have.”
“We’ve had a number of arson fires up here over the years,” Dennis Riley said. “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.”
At the Aug. 5 community meeting, Riley’s great uncle, Jim Riley, also brought up the issue of previous arson fires in the region.
He gave the example of a 16-year-old boy from Yucaipa who was arrested in 2009 and initially charged as an adult for setting multiple large fires over the course of three years. In 2010, the adult charges were dropped and the boy was instead charged as a juvenile.
Also in 2009, Rickie Lee Fowler was charged and indicted with igniting the 2003 Old Fire in San Bernardino County. He was seen throwing a lit flare into brush by the side of the road.
The area has seen multiple other cases of arson over the years. “The community is a little sensitive about arson for a reason,” Jim Riley said.
Another local resident who preferred not to be named told The Epoch Times he saw two boys running from the area the fires started on July 31.
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.
Daron Wyatt, a public information officer for the interagency team working on the fires, spoke at the Aug. 5 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.
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.
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 said 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 55 percent contained as of Aug. 11. 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.