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Saturday, January 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Arsonist gets six months in jail for 2016 fires north of Spokane

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 6, 2019

The Yale Road fire scorched farmland and forested areas near Valleyford, south of Spokane, in August 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The Yale Road fire scorched farmland and forested areas near Valleyford, south of Spokane, in August 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A 24-year-old man was sentenced Thursday to six months in jail for starting several brush fires north of Spokane in August 2016.

The fires in the Wandermere area were small but diverted firefighters and resources from two much larger blazes that erupted on the same day in Spokane and Valleyford, destroying homes, crops and other property.

Joshua C. Phillips was convicted of second-degree arson following a jury trial last month in Spokane County Superior Court.

On Thursday, Judge John Cooney ordered Phillips to check himself into jail by the afternoon of Dec. 12, undergo a mental health evaluation and pay about $6,800 in restitution. Cooney also approved Phillips for work-release during his time in jail. Afterward, Phillips will be under supervision for one year.

The six-month sentence is in the middle of the standard range that was presented to Cooney. Deputy prosecutor Geoff Kristianson requested the maximum of nine months, while Phillips’ public defender, Jeff Compton, sought the minimum of three months.

Robert Smith, a pastor and chaplain for the Spokane Fire Department, testified on Phillips’ behalf on Thursday, along with another family friend who read a statement from Phillips’ mother.

“It was never Josh’s intent to hurt anyone … but nonetheless it was a serious, dangerous threat,” Smith said of the fires. Smith added that “serving nine months incarcerated is not going to change the behavioral, underlying issues that have prompted this kind of behavior.”

Allan Gallanger, an officer in the state Department of Natural Resources’ law enforcement division, investigated the 2016 fires, as well as previous fires that Phillips set in the Colbert area when he was a teenager in 2011.

Testifying Thursday, Gallanger recalled interviewing Phillips about those previous fires, which resulted in a reckless burning conviction and a brief stint in juvenile detention.

“I asked him, I said, ‘Josh, why did you start these fires?’ And he looked at me, and he kind of leaned forward and he goes, ‘I really like fire,’ ” Gallanger recalled.

The investigation into the 2016 fires lasted more than a year and involved numerous officials from local fire districts, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The fires were set on the afternoon of Aug. 21, 2016, in patches of dry grass and timber near Rutter Parkway and Dorset Road, and the largest burned about one-tenth of an acre, according to court records.

While the fires were quickly extinguished, they drew resources away from two much larger blazes that started on the same day: the Wellesley fire on Spokane’s Beacon Hill and the Yale Road fire that ripped through the Valleyford area to the south.

“We ended up calling in a state mobilization on that day,” said Jack Cates, the chief of Spokane County Fire District 9, who served as incident commander for the Beacon Hill fire. “Everybody south of the river was down in Valleyford.”

The arson investigation picked up steam when Gallanger, the DNR officer, stopped by a home on Rutter Parkway and asked to review surveillance footage from the day of the fire.

Court records say the footage showed a red and silver Subaru Impreza, registered to Phillips, stopping along the road just before the fires came into view. The records say Phillips admitted that was his car in an interview with DNR and ATF investigators.

Before announcing Phillips’ sentence on Thursday, Cooney described four goals that a criminal sentence might accomplish. He listed retribution, incapacitation, rehabilitation and finally deterrence – setting an example for others who might commit the same crime.

“I think deterrence might be appropriate, to some extent, because it’s very hard to catch an arsonist,” Cooney said.

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