Murder Cover-Up: Man Allegedly Set Deadly Wildfire to Hide His Crime

Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires burn in Napa County on Aug. 18, 2020.

Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires burn in Napa County on Aug. 18, 2020.
Photo: Noah Berger (AP)

A fire that raged outside of San Francisco last summer was allegedly set to cover up a murder—and became part of the largest wildfire season on record in California as well as one of the deadliest.

Officials in California said Wednesday that 29-year-old Victor Serriteno allegedlyset a fire in August in Solano County to cover up the murder of 32-year-old Priscilla Castro, a woman whom he’d met online. The Markley Fire, as it became known, started two days after Castro’s disappearance following a date with Serriteno, and ultimately killed two other people in their homes; Castro’s body was found in early September. Serriteno was arrested in September for Castro’s murder, and authorities said he will be charged with additional counts of arson and murder for the other two deaths caused by the fire.

The Markley Fire became part of the larger LNU Lightning Complex Fire that raged across five counties for more than a month last August, killing six people, injuring five, and destroying more than 1,500 buildings. The fire eventually burned over more than 363,000 acres, making it the fifth-largest fire on record in the state.

Last year’s wildfire season in California was the state’s worst on record. While the Markley Fire appears to have been part of an arson and murder plot, much of the August firestorm that seized California was driven by a freak series of lightning storms. Fires burned largely out of control across the state, stretching firefighting resources to the brink and destroying vital monitoring infrastructure, homes, and livelihoods. A resurgence of wildfires later in the year added to the devastating toll.

All told, five of the state’s six largest wildfires on record happened last year. One of the megafires in the north of the state surpassed 1 million acres, making it the first “gigafire” in modern California history. More than 30 people ultimately died in California’s 2020 fire season.

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An analysis of more than 100 studies found that climate change played an “unequivocal and pervasive” role in creating the conditions for this deadly season. Climate change isn’t the spark for most big disasters—it’s not like our warming planet spontaneously combusts simply because it’s getting too hot. In fact, many fires are ignited by human activity. The 2018 Camp Fire—California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire on record—was sparked by a faulty PG&E electrical transmission line; the Carr Fire, another deadly blaze in 2018, was later found to be caused by a fire on the side of a trailer. Contrary to misinformation and conspiracy theories, space lasers and antifa have nothing to do with the situation at hand.

But what climate change does guarantee is that once a fire gets going, it really gets going—and last summer was no exception, as climate change has supercharged both warming and drought in the West. The news of Serriteno’s alleged plot is a double tragedy. It’s horrific that a woman was killed in the first place, but especially horrible that the coverup for her death contributed to two more casualties and played into a larger ecological catastrophe. And it serves as a reminder that as we keep pushing our planet to the brink, smaller actions could have even bigger consequences.