The life and death of a serial arsonist
Jim Hough seemed to have it all—until he was caught for setting dozens of wildfires
It is impossible to know what Jim Hough was thinking when he drove from his tidy home with the white trim and the clipped lawn the morning of Aug. 10. It was a Friday, and as usual the little town of Live Oak was calm as he left for work at the 7-Up bottling plant in nearby Marysville.
Albert Street, where Jim lived with his younger son and his wife of 29 years, is a pleasant neighborhood of well-kept, unpretentious homes with lap siding, fenced back yards and portable basketball hoops set street side. In late summer, not a single for-sale sign could be seen on the street, an indication that this is a place where families set down roots and build lives.
And 56-year-old Jim Hough (pronounced Huff) had built what had every appearance of being a wonderful life. Sure, he had some issues, as anyone does. He drank heavily at times. His father, also a heavy drinker, was ailing, and his younger brother had committed suicide in 2000.
But Hough and his wife, Lynn, still loved each other. His two sons, the younger a senior in high school, the older a corrections officer at the Yuba County Jail, were his joys and had always been the focus of his energies. He held the top job at the plant he’d worked at for 33 years. He was an accomplished competitive archer, loved to hunt, fish and camp, and if the crowd at his packed funeral service was any indication, he had a lot of friends who respected and enjoyed him.
In short, Hough seemed to have it all.
We’ll never know if he thought of his many blessings when he headed out that lovely morning, or if he was excited when he left the job at about 10 a.m. for an early start to a weekend with his family in the mountain community of Chester. What we do know is that by day’s end Hough would be arrested as a serial arsonist and plunged into a hell of accusation, confession and ruin that left those who loved him devastated, bewildered and disbelieving.
Something compelled this otherwise fine man to set nature ablaze. For the past three summers, in the days before the Fourth of July, he had bought a supply of a certain kind of firework. Then for weeks, until his supply ran out, he took off from work, drove the country roads around Yuba City and Live Oak, lit the fuses of those fireworks and tossed them from his vehicle into the dry grass and brush. Some of the fires he set stayed small, thanks to quick action by various fire departments. Others consumed hundreds of acres.
No one was injured in the blazes, and only one home was scorched. But through his actions, Hough had joined a fraternity of criminals who purposely destroy what most others want to protect. Emerging evidence that some of last week’s fires in Southern California were set by arsonists demonstrates once again that this fraternity is horribly effective.
More than 7,700 of the wildland fires fought by CalFire between 2000 and 2006 were deliberately set. They caused more than $173 million in direct economic damage and many tens of millions more in taxpayer dollars to fight. And those numbers do not include arson fires set on federal lands, such as the 2006 Esperanza Fire east of Los Angeles that killed five firefighters, destroyed 34 homes and charred 40,200 acres. The man accused of setting that fire, Raymond L. Oyler, is also believed to be a serial arsonist, and he is now facing five capital murder counts.
In Northern California, including Butte County, an astounding one-third of all wildland fires are believed to be maliciously set. And Jim Hough, a man who loved dogs and never missed his sons’ soccer games, played a major role in that activity for the past three years.
He set his last fire on his way to Chester that day, and his subsequent arrest landed him in a Butte County jail cell. It was there, at the jail, where he had to face his wife and younger son during a wrenching visit Sunday morning. It was in that cell that he came to understand that conviction was likely, and that he could spend the rest of his life locked up.
“I’ve been married to this man for 29 years and I can’t comprehend it,” Lynn Hough said, her voice tender with emotion. “I can’t justify it. I can’t sugar-coat it. … We don’t understand it, whatsoever. I can’t even fathom it.”
She said there is nothing in her husband’s past suggesting he could be an arsonist. He had no interest in firefighting, no fascination with the many campfires they enjoyed over the years, no recognizable twist of personality that hinted at arson. The whole thing makes so little sense that she can’t help but think investigators made a terrible mistake.
“He was an awesome father and an awesome husband, and he provided for us, and I can’t understand this. … I don’t know that they got the right person.”
But that slight uncertainty seems like wishful thinking when it’s weighed against the evidence, including a taped admission by her husband. So she’s left struggling to believe the unbelievable, to understand what drove her husband to join his pathological fraternity.
She’s far from alone.
Jim Hough’s sister, Devra Heming, who lives in Houston, summed up the family’s feeling: “All I can say is it was a complete, total, unbelievable, unexplainable shock to us. With no indication that there could be anything like this.”
Investigators are just as perplexed.
“There was nothing odd about him,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. “He seems to be what he is on the surface: a 56-year-old soft-drink distribution manager.”
Veteran CalFire arson investigator Alan Carlson, who interrogated Hough, said serial arsonists often keep their motives deeply hidden. He said that even when they want to, many have difficulty explaining themselves.
“They have a hard time articulating why they do this, and very few have a cogent reason,” he said.
Carlson, who has interviewed numerous arsonists in his 25-year career, said many seem like perfectly normal individuals.
“It’s important for people to understand there’s a lot of these guys out around here, and that they are often the people just down the street,” he said.
That, naturally, makes finding an arsonist difficult. Only about 2 percent of arson fires are ever solved, according to national statistics, and Carlson said they were lucky to catch Hough.
When he left home for work that morning of Aug. 10, Hough didn’t know he was being followed by CalFire investigators, or that his black Toyota 4Runner had been tagged with a GPS tracking device. He had become a suspect just the week before, when his vehicle was spotted leaving an area where a number of fires had just been set. That was the break investigators had been waiting for in their efforts to catch the serial arsonist who had been plaguing the area since early July.
Authorities, including CalFire arson investigator Josh White, had been following Hough for several days and had watched him tour the Sutter Buttes, where he had set a number of recent fires. They planned to keep him under surveillance until the following Wednesday, when he was to be arrested.
But Hough’s actions Aug. 10 forced them to move early.
“We knew things were escalating,” Carlson explained.
What follows comes from interviews with state and county officials, as well as a review of the nearly two-hour taped interrogation taken late that night at the Butte County District Attorney’s Office in Oroville.
When Hough returned home from work at 10 that morning, he changed into a black sleeveless shirt and blue jeans, loaded two of the family’s four dogs into the 4Runner, and headed out again, this time driving north on Highway 99 toward Chico. He turned east on Highway 162 into Oroville, where he stopped at the Wal-Mart to buy ammunition for the semi-automatic pistol he had with him. From Oroville, he continued north on Highway 70, cut over to Highway 99, and headed for Chico. There he took Highway 32 toward Chester.
Thanks to the GPS, investigators were able to conduct what they call a loose surveillance, with one car staying far ahead of Hough and the other tailing out of sight behind. The drive was uneventful until about 3 p.m., when they were about 20 miles north of Forest Ranch.
There, at the bottom of the steep, heavily forested draw at Deer Creek, Hough pulled to the side of the road and stopped, forcing the rear surveillance vehicle and other cars that had gotten bunched together at a road construction site a few miles back to pass him. The investigators were concerned that Jim could be dumping traffic, trying to ensure no one was behind him to see what he was doing.
The investigators stopped their vehicles just up the road from Deer Creek and waited. It didn’t take long for them to spot Hough coming toward them. They assumed he was resuming his travels east. But then he did something interesting. He pulled over right where they were parked on the shoulder and made a sharp U-turn, almost hitting White’s vehicle, and drove off back toward Deer Creek.
They didn’t know what Hough was up to, so they didn’t wait long before beginning to follow him. But very soon Hough passed them again, coming from the other direction and again heading eastward. Before the investigators found a place to turn around themselves, they came upon a blaze racing up the hillside. Hough had just started what would be called the Colby Fire, which would burn 168 acres, close Highway 32 for three days and cost the Forest Service $1.3 million to suppress.
Investigators never learned whether Hough had planned all along to start a fire at that location or acted spontaneously when he spotted what he thought was a good opportunity.
“He picked the worst place to set a fire,” Carlson said, indicating that the steep slope and narrow draw allowed the fire to spread rapidly. Although the investigators were at the scene within minutes, they could do nothing to stop it.
After reporting the fire, the investigators continued their tail. They conferred with Carlson, who was working in his Redding office at the time. They agreed that Hough was a threat and needed to be picked up that day.
Carlson left his office and met the surveillance team in a parking lot near Chester to devise the arrest strategy. The actual arrest, which took place at about 6 p.m. on Forest Service Road 10 five miles east of Chester, went smoothly. The only surprise was when they realized Hough had a loaded semi-automatic pistol on the seat next to him. But he was compliant, even waiving his right to extradition—formally required when a suspect is taken across county lines for prosecution—so they could transport him to jail.
After the arrest, investigators called Lynn Hough, who had planned to meet her husband and Zachary, their younger son, in Chester. She was stunned when she heard her husband had just set a forest fire and was in custody. She was told she needed to come to Chester to pick up the two dogs, as the Toyota was being impounded. But she was tied up at her home business and couldn’t get away, so she frantically called Zachary, who was already at the family travel trailer in Chester, and he left to get the dogs.
At about 10 that night, Hough was sitting in a room of the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, facing Carlson and White. His legs were crossed and he looked calm for someone in his position. After receiving his Miranda rights, he said he wouldn’t be able to say much until he consulted an attorney. But it’s clear he wanted to learn what they knew.
So when Carlson started the interview by stating, “We know you were responsible for this fire,” Jim cocked his head back and asked, “And how do you know that?”
That’s when White told him he’d been followed all day and, to prove it, he provided an itinerary of Hough’s travels, up to the moment he pulled off the road at Deer Creek for the second time.
“That’s when you threw out something to start that fire,” White said.
Instead of denying the act, Jim asked, “Did anybody see me throw something out?”
“Yes,” White responded, saying that a fisherman happened to be coming up to the highway from the creek just when Jim tossed out the little firework he always used to start his fires. “He described your vehicle. He described you, and he saw it.”
That actually wasn’t true. No one saw Jim set the fire. White and Carlson had decided earlier on the fabrication, hoping Jim would conclude that he was nailed and would be more likely to confess. Interrogators will commonly exaggerate the evidence a suspect faces while suggesting that cooperation will lead to leniency in order to encourage a confession. But even without an eyewitness, the evidence against Jim was substantial.
Carlson showed Hough a photograph of the partially burned firework device recovered from the scene and said he expected to get fingerprints and possibly DNA evidence from it. Later he implied they had retrieved similar forensic evidence from identical fireworks found at other arson fires.
Hough knew he had almost a dozen of the same devices tucked in two places on the 4Runner.
White also told Hough about the ongoing surveillance, how they watched him as he toured the Sutter Butte fire locations. And Hough learned of the evidence they had indicating that the week before his vehicle was seen leaving an area where a string of fires had just been set with the same fireworks.
As the evidence piled up, Hough stared off, as if he could see doom descending on him. Still, he didn’t offer much for about the first hour of the interview, and Carlson and White, who always were respectful toward Hough, worked to find the right approach.
“What would Ryan want you to do?” Carlson asked at one point, referring to Hough’s older son, the corrections officer.
Carlson and White minimized Hough’s actions—"It’s not the crime of the century,” White said—and they told him that everyone makes bad decisions occasionally, that the best thing is to admit when you’re wrong, to take responsibility. Carlson added that a future sentencing judge would take Hough’s cooperation into consideration.
Eventually, their efforts paid off.
“Well, I guess I’m guilty,” Hough finally said.
By the time the interview ended, Hough had come clean. He reviewed maps and pointed out where he set the fires. He explained his technique, how he always acted in the daytime and always used the same type of firework, which he would light with a burning cigarette and simply toss out the passenger window into the dry grass or brush. He was always alone, he said, and never told a soul.
The one thing he could not explain was why, at the age of 53, he began setting fires. Carlson and White pressed him hard on that, throwing out possible motives.
Was it stress?
Hough conceded there were stresses in his life. His plant was under new ownership, and he wasn’t happy about that. His father was ailing and headed to a nursing home. He was fighting with his sister, who was caring for their father. But he didn’t think any of that related.
Did he hate ranchers or wildlife officials—he was convicted years before for poaching deer—and want to hurt them by destroying range land and habitat? No, he said.
Did he get an adrenalin rush?
“You do a little bit, watching the flames, but then you think: What the fuck did I do that for?” he replied.
Nothing made sense.
“We’re dying to know why,” Carlson almost pleaded.
White tried a different approach: “When people get to this point … it’s an incredible stress release … to explain why.”
But Hough just mumbled, “I don’t know.”
When he realized there was no escape, Hough began to ask about his fate. “What are we looking at?” he asked, naively wondering if he was facing a felony and if he might be released on his own recognizance.
When Carlson told him the sentencing options for wildland arson are two, four and six years, Hough seemed shaken. He fidgeted, rubbed his right shoulder with his manacled hands and stated, “Two years, four years, six years: I’d just as soon shoot myself.”
What Carlson didn’t tell Hough, but he surely learned from his attorney, was that the two-to-six-year sentencing range was for a single arson count, and that each subsequent count would add more than a year of prison time. Carlson is confident they could have tied Hough to 46 fires, which easily could have put him away for life.
As it turned out, he initially was charged with nine felony counts, and bail was set at $675,000. Additional charges were pending.
Hough came to understand in the coming days that he was a ruined man, that his job was gone, his freedom lost, that he would be separated, possibly forever, from his family and his fine home on Albert Street. It was all lost.
In the black pre-dawn hours exactly two weeks after he left his home that beautiful Friday morning, Jim Hough fashioned a noose out of a jail sheet, tied it to the bars of his cells and somehow found the will to strangle himself by forcing his body downward, tightening the noose.
He was discovered unconscious at 3:45 a.m. CPR and a rush to the Oroville Hospital failed to save him. His brain had stopped functioning, and he was kept breathing only by machines.
Authorities made the awful call to his wife, and later that morning she was lying next to her husband on the hospital bed, embracing the man she loved but was forced to wonder how well she knew.
She gave her consent for the machines to be turned off, and held him as his heart stopped beating.
For two weeks, Lynn Hough had been caught in a cascading horror that made absolutely no sense and seemed to have no end. The one comfort she carries is that she was with her husband at the end.
“I couldn’t touch him for two weeks,” she said, speaking of the glass partition that kept them apart during her many visits to the county jail in Oroville. “Every time I went to visit him, all we could do was cry; we couldn’t touch each other.”
“I’m glad I got to lay in the bed with him … I got to hold him.”
And though she cannot fathom how the man she loved and had known for so long could be an arsonist, she does understand his final act. Facing the crushing legal cost and a long, ugly investigation, Hough sought to spare those he loved.
“What Jim chose to do, in my heart, was to save his family,” Lynn said. “This was the most unselfish suicide … and I know he had unconditional love for his family.”
Apparently Hough twice told authorities he might kill himself. Lynn said that, a few days after his arrest, her husband told a judge at a bail hearing, “I would rather commit suicide than go to jail.”
“I knew he was capable of this,” she said.
Asked if she thought jail staff, which left Jim alone and reportedly did not have him on suicide watch, was culpable in his death, she said she couldn’t think about it.
“I mentally and physically can’t do it,” she said.
Before he killed himself, Jim wrote a note to his family. In it, he didn’t try to explain himself or justify his actions. He simply expressed what was most important to him at the end of his life.
Addressing himself to “my beautiful wife and sons,” Jim Hough wrote: “I’m so sorry I let you down and ruined your lives. … I love you, and please don’t forget all the good times we had. I’m sorry I took this way out.”