Concord resident, Julie Tenpenny (48) was arrested this month on suspicion of starting a grass fire in Martinez. It seems that Tenpenny used a lighter to set small fires near Alhambra Hills Drive. Law enforcement officials say that they received phoned-in tips about the woman starting as early as 5pm on Sunday evening. When they went to investigate, they found Tenpenny – uncooperative and seemingly under the influence of drugs. Why she started the small fires, which did require the Contra Costa County Fire Department to drop some water from their helicopters in order to extinguish the minor blaze, is still a mystery. Because Tenpenny refused to cooperate – even getting into a struggle with the arresting officers – she was charged with both arson and being under the influence of drugs.
In the state of California, there are two sections of the Penal Code that could apply to cases such as Tenpenny’s: arson (CA Penal Code §451) and “reckless burning (CA Penal Code §452). There is a significant difference between these two charges: arson is done intentionally, whereas reckless burning may occur when, for example, someone accidentally causes a fire after dropping a lit cigarette. Tenpenny has been charged with arson because the police suspect that she was purposefully using a lighter to set the small fires. Bail in this case has been set at $75,000 and this indicates that Tenpenny has most likely been charged with felony arson. The crime of arson is taken so seriously in California that there are even special “fire investigators” who act as part of a larger task force to solve crimes of this nature. Being charged with either arson or reckless burning does not depend upon whether or not damage was done to persons or to property. In Tenpenny’s case, no real damage was done and the fire was quickly stifled. However, if prosecutors can prove that she purposefully and “maliciously” set the hilly area on fire, she can still be subjected to psychological evaluation before sentencing and may spend anywhere from 3 to 9 years in state prison and pay up to $60,000 in fines.