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Firestarters : The Compulsion of Wildland Arsonists and the Obsession of Those Who Chase Them

August 16, 1987|DIANE SWANBROW | Diane Swanbrow is a Los Angeles writer.

EVERY FIRE SEASON IN Southern California is a potential disaster. Wildfires sweep the region every summer and fall, and in the worst years, fires dominate the national news with scenes of numbing desolation. Since 1960 more than a mllion acres have been burned and 54 lives and 2,355 homes have been lost. The most desirable neighborhoods are often hit the hardest. The 1961 Bel-Air fire destroyed 484 homes that were among the most expensive in the country. In 1977 the Sycamore Canyon fire razed 234 homes in Santa Barbara's Riviera. The good life in Malibu is particularly vulnerable; the Kanan fire in 1978 exploded at the staggering rate of 167 acres per minute, burning homes to the ocean from its origin in the Malibu hills.

The California Department of Forestry expects the 1987 fire season to be among the worst in history. Between one-third and one-half of the record number of 10,000 "wildland" fires forecast for the state will occur in Southern California. (Firefighting agencies use the term "wildland" to describe fires that start in brush and forest.) The reasons for this grim prediction are is partially beyond anyone's control. This year the chaparral is unusually dry. In many sections of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains the brush contains less than half the normal level of moisture, a result of temperature extremes last winter and spring combined with below-normal rainfall. To make the situation even more explosive, disease has killed much of a common shrub, the ceanothus, in recent years, leaving wide swaths of dead fuel that burns hot and fast.

But blaming nature makes little sense when officials from all major firefighting agencies agree that at least half the wildland fires here are caused by arson. These fires are often the most disastrous; arsonists tend to strike when conditions are right, using Santa Ana winds as an accelerant. The 1980 Panorama fire that destroyed 355 homes in San Bernardino and the 1985 Decker Canyon fire that again devastated Malibu are just the most notorious of many fires that were crimes, not tragic accidents. Despite the persistence and skill of investigators, the arsonists who were responsible have not been caught. What makes this so alarming is that wildland arsonists rarely stop after one fire. In the space of a few years, a single arsonist haunting the hills has been known to set 200 fires or more. As temperatures rise and humidity drops, this is not a reassuring thought. Nor is it comforting to consider how strange a crime this is or to listen to the stories investigators tell about serial arsonists.

EVEN WITHOUT THE Smokey the Bear tie pin he sometimes wears, Doug Allen fits the image of a forest ranger. He stands 6 feet, 5 1/2 inches tall, has wavy white hair and a deep, resonant voice that sounds like a good-natured growl. For years he traveled around the state fighting fires for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which handles most of the wildland fires in the state. Once he was gone four months straight; when he got home, his wife told him their daughter had set fire to some leaves in a gutter. When asked why, the little girl said she wanted Daddy to come home and put the fire out. Shortly afterward, Allen switched from fighting fires to figuring out what started them. He worked as an arson investigator for 20 years before accepting the job of chief law enforcement officer for the department's Southern California region last May. Before he took the job he turned down 101 written offers for promotion. Like other arson investigators, he takes pride in statistics that suggest how difficult the job is: Last year in Los Angeles County, 57% of the homicide cases were solved, compared to 8% of the arson cases. "It's the most frustrating job in law enforcement," he says. "But after a while, you kind of get the frustration burned out of you."

Many factors conspire to make arson one of the toughest crimes to investigate. The primary reason is that the weapon consumes most of the evidence, or at least transforms it into something as indecipherable to the average detective as an Aramaic hieroglyphic. To establish that a fire was not an accident demands a painstaking search through sodden rubble, guided by a highly esoteric knowledge of fire behavior and burn patterns. Electronic sniffers capable of detecting minute concentrations of flammable vapors, chromatographs that can distinguish gasoline from paint thinner, and other tools take the investigator only so far in the almost metaphysical quest to determine the cause of the fire and its point of origin.

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