San Diego fire update: Prosecutors reject arson charge against 19-year-old

A firefighter hoses flames at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos.
A firefighter hoses flames at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos.
David McNew/Getty Images

Prosecutors are declining to charge a 19-year-old who was suspected of starting two small fires in Southern California as blazes raged throughout the region last week.

The San Diego County district attorney's office said Tuesday that there was insufficient evidence to charge the man with starting the blazes. He and a 17-year-old boy were arrested in Escondido on Thursday on suspicion of arson in connection with fires that were extinguished within minutes.

Cocos Fire

The district attorney's office says it is prohibited by state law from providing information on the 17-year-old because he is a juvenile.

RELATED: Firefighters expect to have large Cocos Fire contained Thursday

Investigators found no evidence linking the teens to about dozen wildfires that destroyed 44 houses, an 18-unit apartment complex and three businesses. The cause of the most destructive fires hasn't been determined.

Forest Service adds planes before bad fire season 

As the Obama administration pushes Congress to ensure that enough money is available to fight destructive wildfires, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday that the U.S. Forest Service was adding four aircraft to its firefighting fleet ahead of what's expected to be another hot, dry summer in the West.

A second DC10 and three smaller planes will support over 10,000 firefighters "in the face of what is shaping up to be a catastrophic fire season in the southwest," the Forest Service said in a statement.

In drought-stricken California, wildfires that broke out in San Diego County last week caused more than $20 million in damage. The state firefighting agency went to peak staffing in the first week of April, instead of its usual start in mid-May.

Thousands of additional firefighters may be needed in the future, California Gov. Jerry Brown told ABC's "This Week," adding that California is on the front lines of climate change.

Vilsack made the announcement in Colorado while discussing ways to revamp the nation's firefighting budget. Increasingly destructive fires, powered by climate change and development in once-rural areas, are devouring an increasing amount of the Forest Service's budget and forcing it to skimp on brush clearance and other programs that eliminate the fuel that feeds the blazes.

The 2015 budget request for firefighting is $2.2 billion, up from $2.1 billion in 2014. It also would set up an additional $954 million disaster funding pool, to avoid dipping into fire-prevention programs. Borrowing from other programs would only occur if the $954 million in disaster spending is exhausted.

"This is just extraordinarily important," Vilsack said. "We need to start thinking about forest fires caused by lightning in the same way we think about tornadoes and floods and hurricanes." He said those disasters are paid for by separate funds in the federal budget.

With the announcement Tuesday, the Forest Service brought its fleet to 21 large air tankers and more than 100 helicopters. About a decade ago, the Forest Service had more than 40 of the big tankers at its disposal. According to federal analysts, the fleet hit a low of eight aircraft at one point last year, depleted by age and worries over the ability of the planes to stay in the sky. But five of the service's planes are still not ready to fly.

Colorado's top firefighting official said the new federal aircraft offered a "sigh of relief."

Paul Cooke, director of the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said he was expecting an average fire season for Colorado. But he said "average" in recent years has meant some 3,000 fires and more than 100,000 acres burned.

Colorado's senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, also welcomed Tuesday's tanker announcement.

During his stop in Denver, the agriculture secretary also announced prevention measures that include designations to help 94 national forest areas in 35 states address insects and diseases that turn trees into tinder.

Also Tuesday, the Forest Service banned exploding targets in northern Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and portions of South Dakota in part to avoid wildfire risks.

In Colorado, red flag warnings on the risk of wildfires were posted for Colorado Springs and other parts of the state as well as New Mexico and Arizona. The danger is also high in the Texas Panhandle and southwestern Kansas.