Money Burns

The town of Hayfork, in Northern California’s remote Trinity County, endured a nasty fire season several years back. Every few weeks–sometimes every few days–crews would race to douse blazes starting in curious places. As Mother Jones reported in “Fire Trail,” by Mike Weiss (March 1993), it seemed likely that someone was intentionally setting Hayfork on fire.

Since the late 1980s, Hayfork (population 2,000) had experienced a devastating economic downturn: The U.S. Forest Service had halted green-timber sales when much of the Trinity National Forest was declared habitat of the endangered spotted owl; six of the seven lumber mills in the Hayfork Valley had closed. Investigators speculated that arsonists might be starting the fires so they could make money putting them out; so loggers could cut down the scorched trees; so mills would have enough timber for their production schedule.

Officials have never proven economic arson in California’s recent history. But last August, a Hayfork transient pled guilty to starting three fires in summer 1992 so he and others could profit by extinguishing them. In exchange for his plea in federal court, 32-year-old Ernest Earl Ellison agreed to help authorities convict the rest of what is believed to be a local arson ring.

Ellison confessed after former mill hand Steve Weinzinger told investigators, and later a federal grand jury, about a business proposition Ellison made to him that summer. Ellison needed a driver to drop him off while he started fires, and then quickly whisk him from the scene. In return, Weinzinger would get $300. “I thought he was joking at the time,” said Weinzinger, who refused.

Ellison is pointing fingers at some of the “pillars of the community,” according to Charles Stevens, the U.S. attorney on the Hayfork case. The investigation now appears to be centering on some owners of water tenders, which transport water to remote stretches of forest. Holding 4,000 to 5,000 gallons, tenders can be highly profitable during a fire: The U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry pay more than $2,000 a day for a water tender.

According to Stevens, Ellison implicated his brother Jimmy in open court. Jimmy, who co-owns a water tender with Jack Hoaglen, has thus far refused to cooperate with authorities; Hoaglen has been questioned.

Hayfork is not alone. The desperation and greed that prompted some locals to burn their own valley is repeating itself throughout Northern California. “It is my estimation that a full 80 to 90 percent of the forest fires in Northern California in the past few years have been arson for profit,” said Stevens.

Hayfork is unfortunately now on the map as the place where economic arson came out of the closet. Last year, as a result of our story, the community received a federal grant for locals and environmentalists to begin the healing process. More wounds are likely to be reopened in the coming months. The forest can be a community’s livelihood, but that is no reason a few miscreants, thinking that it belongs to them, can get away with arson.


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