Man Sentenced to Federal Prison for Sparking Blaze That Damaged Joshua Tree Landmark in Twentynine Palms

A Twentynine Palms man was given the maximum sentence of five years in federal prison on Monday for lighting a fire that destroyed parts of a natural oasis near Joshua Tree National Park earlier this year, official said.

George William Graham, 26, was also ordered to pay more than $21,000 in restitution to the National Park Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said in a news release.

The March 26 blaze at the Oasis of Mara — which sits behind the Joshua Tree Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms — destroyed seven California fan palms and scores of other plants, and had forced the attraction to shut down.

The 26-year-old was found watching the flames’ progress by Park Service rangers, who subsequently arrested him.

At the time, Graham was already on parole for one of two previous arson convictions, prosecutors said.

In June, Graham pleaded guilty to starting the fire, saying it began when he used a lighter to ignite a palm frond.

According to the plea agreement he entered with prosecutors, “[t]he fire eventually grew to approximately 9,989 square feet, and destroyed numerous grasses, bushes, palm trees, vegetation and other items of significance within the Oasis of Mara.”

The oasis was given its name by the indigenous Serrano people, who settled at the small spring and planted 29 palm trees during their first year there for each boy born in the community during that time, according to NPS. The town of Twentynine Palms was later established, encompassing the site, and the oasis was donated to NPS in 1950.

The landmark, which includes a nature trail, draws more than 140,000 visitors each year, officials said.