Reckless Burning vs Arson in California

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The San Diego area has experienced a string of house fires over the last several months, some of which have been categorized as arson or suspected arson. For example, a house fire in City Heights in April that resulted in an estimated $300,000 in damage was deemed intentional by the authorities.

A recent Del Cerro house fire that resulted in one death and over $800,000 in damage was suspected to be the result of arson. So, what exactly is arson?  

What is Arson?

In California, there are two major crimes associated with the burning of a structure, forest land, or property: arson and reckless burning. Arson is considered the more serious of the two. 

In order to convict an individual in California, these types of arson must be proved: 

  1.  The accused set fire to a structure, forest land, or property – This encompasses virtually every form of property. This includes trees, tunnels, buildings, bridges, and homes.
  2. The accused did so willfully and maliciously – A fire set to a structure, forest land, or property must be willful and malicious. In order for an act to be willful, it must be deliberate. In other words, arson charges may not result from an accidental fire. And maliciousness is the intentional engagement in a wrongful act with the intent to damage the property of another. 

What is Reckless Burning?

Reckless burning is essentially the same as arson but with a lesser intent requirement. The mental state required to be convicted of reckless burning is one that constitutes a gross deviation from the conduct of a reasonable individual. 

In other words, recklessness is a step beyond mere negligence—it requires an awareness of the substantial risks involved in one’s actions. For example, starting a fire in a dry area on a windy day could potentially result in a reckless burning charge if the fire results in property damage or injury.   

What are the Penalties?

The penalties associated with both arson and reckless burning can be severe, and all persons charged with these crimes should immediately seek the assistance of legal counsel. 

The penalty for arson can be determined based on a number of different factors, such as the type of property damaged and whether the fire resulted in injury. An arson conviction can result in up to nine years in prison, up to $50,000 in fines, and a strike under California’s Three Strikes Law. 

In addition, the reckless burning penalty can result in up to 12 months in jail, probation, and a fine of up to $1000. 

San Diego Arson Defense Attorneys 

Given the severity of arson and reckless burning charges, anyone charged with these crimes should immediately seek legal representation.

At the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, we are experts in the areas of arson and reckless burning defense. Our experienced criminal defense lawyers work diligently on behalf of all of our clients in order to achieve the most favorable results possible.

If you are facing criminal charges for arson or reckless burning, please contact us for a free consultation.

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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