Police and fire officials are looking for an arsonist they believe is responsible for at least 16 fires that caused nearly $500,000 in damages to Glendale homes, carports and garages over the last eight months.
Fires at a Pasadena garage and a Burbank carport last week may signal an expansion of the arsonist's activities, Glendale arson investigators Dennis Wilson and John Orr said.
Wilson and Orr said the fires, the most recent of which occurred Monday evening, began in February and have escalated in seriousness from alleyway grass fires to trash-can and garage blazes. No one has been reported injured in the incidents, but several of the fires have spread to nearby houses, causing considerable damage.
"It appears his operations have stepped up quite a bit lately," Wilson said. "Fortunately, nobody has been hurt. But, every time he lights a fire, there's a greater chance somebody is going to get hurt."
The arsonist set about two or three fires a month until last month, when the arsonist struck six times, investigators said. Four were started Aug. 22 alone, they said. One of those fires gutted a Howard Street garage and four cars parked in it, causing $82,000 in damage.
Police Department records show a 25% increase in fires the first six months of this year over the same period last year. Orr attributed the increase partly to the arsonist's activities and partly to an increased recognition of arson.
"But I would definitely say we have seen an increase in the number of structure fires because of this guy," Orr said.
Officials said they have few clues in their search for a suspect. But they believe one person to be responsible for all of them because of similarities in the incidents.
Almost all the fires were started between 4 and 9 p.m. and were set in alleyways or in carports and garages that front alleyways. Many of the fires were started in trash cans filled with debris.
Also, many were set within blocks of one another or even across the street from one another, with clusters on the east side of Glendale's downtown business district and just above Glenoaks Boulevard west of Central Avenue. Many of the fires occurred within days, in some cases hours, of one another.
The only description of a possible suspect was provided by a woman witness to an April 23 trash-can fire in central Glendale. She told fire investigators that a man she asked for help in putting out the fire walked away quickly.
"Normally, with small fires like that, people are attracted to the fire, not away from it," Wilson said. "It's pretty strange that the guy turned and went the other way."
The woman described the man to investigators as a white with dark hair, about 40 years old and about 5 feet, 6 inches to 5 feet, 8 inches tall.
Because that description may not be reliable and because of the hours of the fires, investigators are also looking into the possibility that the arsonist may be a youngster who has to be home early or, if an older person, someone who has to start work in the early morning, Orr said.
Monday's fire at 916 Cleveland Road in Glendale, reported at 8:05 p.m., began in shrubs in an alleyway. A neighbor turned a garden hose on it, extinguishing it before the flames could do any damage to adjacent structures.
An April 15 fire that caused $110,000 damage to a Stocker Street home was followed two days later by a fire at a nearby Viola Avenue home that caused $82,000 in damage. Both fires began in or near alleys and were set about 8 p.m.
An 88-year-old widow who had to move out of her Stocker Street home for five months while repairs were being made said she was "heartbroken" when she heard about the Viola Avenue fire.
'One Big Nightmare'
"I've lived here for 20 years and we've never had any trouble," she said of the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. "Then, in one summer, everything around here turns into one big nightmare."
Orr said officials are investigating the activities of several known arsonists in Southern California, but he refused to elaborate.
Complicating the job of tracking down the arsonist is a string of brush fires set in the foothills in Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena and Crescenta Valley over the summer.
Officials in some of those areas said it is unlikely that the brush fires are linked to the Glendale garage and carport fires, chiefly because no incendiary devices have been found in the Glendale structure fires.
Orr said he suspects that incendiary devices may have been used in some of the Glendale structure fires but that they were so flimsy they were destroyed or washed away while the fires were being put out. Structure fires usually require a greater volume of water on a more concentrated area than do grass fires.
Incendiary Devices Found
He pointed out that six incendiary devices have been found in Glendale brush fires over the summer. He would not describe them, except to say "this particular device is not unusual, but the way it is constructed is unusual."