Citing the “serial nature” of fires set by a 58-year-old Bradley woman last summer, a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge denied her attorney’s request for probation and sentenced her to nearly three years in state prison.
Debra Kay Collins choked back tears as she received two years and eight months in prison for lighting a string of wildland grass fires in the North County in August while local emergency personnel were busy fighting the Chimney Fire.
She faced up to six years in prison.
Collins has remained in San Luis Obispo County Jail in lieu of $462,000 bail since her arrest and is now awaiting transfer to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
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Collins was arrested Sept. 15 after an investigation determined a series of small fires in the Lake Nacimiento Drive area in June were likely related, according to Cal Fire, which investigated the fires with the Kern County Fire Department and the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office.
Collins allegedly admitted to investigators that she started the fires. But they said she wasn’t involved in the Chimney Fire, which started Aug. 13 south of Lake Nacimiento and burned 46,344 acres. Most of Collins’ fires each burned about 1 acre.
She pleaded no contest in March to one count of wildland arson as well as possession of an incendiary device in exchange for the dismissal of six other charges.
Every fire she set had the ability to be another Chimney Fire.
Cal Fire investigator Andy Andersen
In court Monday, Cal Fire investigator Andy Andersen told Judge Craig van Rooyen that the investigation into who was starting the grass fires spanned six weeks and cost about $200,000, draining resources while the region remained in a state of emergency.
Andersen recounted how he, working undercover, befriended Collins and helped temporarily evacuate her home in June during one of the fires. When she returned home, Andersen said, she “resumed her fire-starting activities.”
“Every fire she set had the ability to be another Chimney Fire,” Andersen said. “With serial arsonists, that behavior does not change.”
Deputy District Attorney Lindsey Bittner conceded that Collins has health issues, but also noted several past alcohol-related misdemeanors and that Collins told investigators that she had “blacked out” when she set at least one of the fires.
“(Alcohol) has become something of a scapegoat for her,” Bittner said. “She is essentially manipulative.”
Collins’ attorney Steven Rice told van Rooyen that she was “very remorseful” for her crimes but argued that prison would not help treat her mental or physical health problems.
I just want to be back with my family.
Convicted arsonist Debra Kay Collins
“But for her poor mental health and physical conditions, I don’t think she’d be standing here today,” Rice said. “She’s someone I can’t imagine will ever be in front of your court again.”
If granted probation in lieu of prison, Collins told van Rooyen, she promised to be a “lawful citizen.”
“I just want to be back with my family,” she said.
Before he sentenced her, van Rooyen said he weighed Collins’ “extremely dangerous conduct” — which included starting at least one of the fires with matches and rolls of toilet paper — and the resources it took to catch her. He found that she did not appear to take responsibility for the crimes.
“There seems to be a lack of insight as to why she engaged in this behavior,” van Rooyen said.
Collins will receive about 1 1/4 years’ worth of conduct and time-served credit, van Rooyen said, and will be required to register as an arson offender upon her release.