Crime - Sacto 911

Former Placerville firefighter sentenced in setting of fires

A former Placerville firefighter who once worked for Cal Fire was sentenced to five years in prison Tuesday after admitting he set at least 30 fires in rural areas east of Sacramento.

Benjamin Cunha, 33, was three years removed from his California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection service when he set a series of fires in El Dorado and Amador counties during 2006 and 2007. Federal officials said the fires caused a combined $7 million in damage.

At the time of the blazes, he was a volunteer firefighter with the Diamond Springs Fire Protection District in El Dorado County, according to Cal Fire.

Cunha “was motivated by boredom and the desire to be paid overtime when called out to fight fires,” according to a written plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. Even though he was a volunteer, he could have been eligible for payment during busy periods, said Robert Combs, chief of the Diamond Springs district.

Cunha pleaded guilty in October to a single count of arson. Besides the five-year prison term, he agreed to pay $246,862 in restitution to Cal Fire. He was sentenced by U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez.

Cunha had earlier pleaded guilty to state arson charges in El Dorado Superior Court and was sentenced to a year in prison, according to federal records. Under terms of the state case, he slept in jail but was allowed to go to work each day.

After the state sentence ran its course, federal prosecutors stepped in because two of the fires burned on federal land.

In his plea agreement, Cunha admitted the fires he set included the Mine Fire, which burned 80 acres of land west of Martinez Creek in El Dorado County in July 2007. He admitted starting that fire with a time-delay incendiary device, which was recovered by investigators. Similar devices were found at the scenes of 10 other fires.

Cunha worked as a seasonal firefighter at Cal Fire from 2001 to 2003, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

“We’re happy to see justice in this case,” Berlant said.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler