Longform

An Exclusive Interview With the Preserves Arsonist

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The CSP's primary objective is to influence public opinion through high-publicity actions that eventually result in strict growth control. When asked how long the campaign will continue, the arsonist turns rhetorical.

"How long does it take to have meaningful growth control?" he asks. "How long until Asleep-at-the-Wheel [Governor Jane] Hull does something of substance and not just give lip service? How long does it take until Go-Go-Skippy [Rimsza] forgets he's a real estate man?"

So the arsons will never stop?

"We're hoping to stimulate conversation and awareness, and we're doing that," he says. "We know when to stop. If we have 25 or 30 fires, we're going to make a mistake or get caught."

If the CSP is concerned about growth control, its choice of urban targets is curious. Constructions on the Phoenix Mountains Preserve and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve are an optical illusion of violation. The Preserve is an urban park set aside specifically for the same residents whose houses are being burned. To a hiker or mountain biker, the houses appear to be built on free-range desert, given that the Preserve is not enclosed -- a fence would restrict the movement of wildlife. But houses are not built on the Preserve itself; they are built on the surrounding land already voted into private ownership.

Targeting houses near the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, as the CSP did in the January 18 arson, is a bit more logical. The new houses are built on private property, but there is a current battle to save 16,600 acres of nearby state land trust property from development.

In reality, none of the targets in either Preserve addresses the popular environmentalist concern about the acre-an-hour spread of the Valley's waistline.

So why has the CSP exerted so much concentrated fury on neighborhoods near the North Phoenix Mountains Preserve?

"Because they're encroaching on hiking and biking trails," he says. "Because they're an obnoxious reminder that there is no growth plan."

That answer is crucial to distinguishing the CSP from groups such as the Earth Liberation Front.

The ELF is made up of broadband environmentalists who want to save the world from itself. The CSP, the arsonist says, has only one member who is a devout environmentalist. The arsonist admits he had never even heard of the fight to preserve Tempe Butte, presumably because the Butte has no mountain-bike trails. The ELF has declared war on any business profiting from the exploitation of the natural environment, while the CSP's campaign is more personal -- this is where they live and play.

The arsonist argues that the CSP is less reckless than the ELF. CSP has not burned occupied buildings, for one. Plus, his group does not wish to encourage the growth of untrained and independent cells. "We don't want to have copycat teenagers playing with matches," he says.

As for the nearly identical phrase ("U Build It We Burn It") found at a CSP arson site and, later, an ELF target, the arsonist shrugged, "If they're going to use our phrase, they should give us credit for it."

Fine, but why is the CSP resorting to blunt-force arson in the first place? Why not devote their public lives to making a traditional difference like so many struggling activists in the Valley?

At this question, the arsonist shows a sudden flash of anger.

"That presumes that one or more of us is not already doing that!" he says, brandishing his index finger.

Then, like a flipped switch, he is mellow and once again grooving to the Celtic band.

"I'm known for public advocacy in other areas," he says vaguely. "We anguish over having to take these steps. We do everything we can to minimize the risk to adjacent property owners and to firefighters. But at one fire, I stayed behind and observed [the firefighters]. There's nobody going inside. They're just doing mop-up. Firefighters are in more danger breathing the polluted air."

There's no thrill in lighting these fires, he insists; the whole business is "scary." He worries constantly about jeopardizing the future of his family. He can, and will, stop once the goals are accomplished.

If they are accomplished.

So again, I ask the question he never really answered: What does he feel when he lights up a house?

Once again, he pauses.

"Fear of being observed," he says finally. "And then, anticipation of the media coverage."

Fear and anticipation.

The arsonist may not be a pyromaniac, after all. But there are other ways setting fires can be addictive. The risk. The attention. Outwitting the police. Flirting with the media. All are common qualities in those who commit serial crimes for any reason. If the arsonist has a sin, other than the obvious, it is the apparent pride he takes in his work.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd