A teenage girl convicted of multiple arson charges for starting a fire a year ago that sparked the larger Cocos wildfire has been ordered to perform 400 hours of community service — dodging a potential 13-year term.

The origin of Cocos Fire was near this intersection, officials think. Photo by Chris Stone
The origin of Cocos Fire was near this intersection, officials think. Photo by Chris Stone

The 14-year-old girl, whose name is withheld because she is a minor, can live at home and must attend school. She will spend no time in custody for the blaze, which blackened nearly 2,000 acres in the San Marcos area and destroyed more than 35 homes and other structures.

Wednesday’s sentencing hearing was focused on rehabilitation for the minor, not punishment, said Deputy District Attorney Shawnalyse Ochoa.

But in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon, Ochoa told Times of San Diego that she didn’t think community service would by itself reform the girl.

Ochoa said the District Attorney’s Office supported the Probation Department’s recommendations that included taking the girl into custody.

“Probation’s concern was that the minor has not made any effort towards her own rehabilitation, and none of that happened with the family,” Ochoa said.

Cocos Fire wildfire scene in May.
Cocos Fire wildfire scene in May. Photo by Chris Stone

“So because of that, they made the request that the minor be taken into custody for her assessment.”

The girl will live at home and receive services through Breaking Cycles, a San Diego Youth Services program designed to prevent escalating juvenile delinquency.
Ochoa said she wouldn’t comment on the sentence handed down by Judge Karen Katz, but said, “I don’t believe that community service alone can bring about rehabilitation.”

After a two-week nonjury trial, Judge Howard Shore ruled that the girl, now 14, intentionally set a fire in her back yard on May 13, 2014, then, the next day, set a blaze in her neighbor’s back yard that sent an ember nearly a half-mile to spark the Cocos fire.

Ochoa said the girl expressed glee and laughed when she told her sister about the May 13 fire, ignited with a lighter.

The girl was convicted of three arson counts and one misdemeanor count of allowing a fire to get out of control. Shore ruled that the teen acted willfully and maliciously in setting the fires but said there was no evidence to suggest she intended to harm anyone or burn homes.

The girl, then 13, told investigators she knew that intentionally setting a fire was wrong but she wanted to see what would happen if she did.

“She knew she was doing something wrong, and she did it anyway,” Ochoa said in her closing argument.

The girl went to her room after setting the second fire, allowing that blaze to grow into a larger fire, which sparked the Cocos blaze, the prosecutor said. Two Cal Fire investigators determined that an ember from the fire behind the girl’s home traveled .44 of a mile to spark the Cocos fire, according to the prosecutor.

The Cocos fire was one of more than a dozen brushfires that erupted in hot, dry and windy conditions last spring. Officials said fighting the fires cost nearly $28 million.

— City News Service contributed to this report