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Open Season for Arson

Crime: Most brush fires in L.A. are intentionally and easily set, officials say, with arrests made in only a small percentage of the cases.


Firefighters have a sixth sense for red flag days, those with triple-digit temperatures, single-digit humidity and howling Santa Ana winds.

Arsonists, too, may have this sense. "The majority of fires in this town are set," said Bill Cass, a senior investigator in the Los Angeles Fire Department's arson section.

The recent rash of intentionally set brush fires in Griffith Park shows how vulnerable Southern California can be. On two different days at the park, one of the nation's largest urban wilderness areas, someone started a second blaze while firefighters were still battling the first.

"Wild-land arson is pretty simple," said Karen Terrill, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "California's wild lands are more than willing to burn."

Arsonists caused more than 300 vegetation fires in the city of Los Angeles in the past 12 months, out of a total 460 fires that burned anything from a few square feet of grass to more than 80 acres of brush. Less than a quarter of all arson fires investigated last year resulted in arrests. The rate drops for brush fires.

Orange County fire investigators believe an arsonist started the 1,100-acre Rancho Santa Margarita blaze that threatened million-dollar homes on a hot dry afternoon May 13. Fire crews responded swiftly in overwhelming numbers. That, combined with an early aggressive brush-clearing effort that formed a natural fire break, was credited for preventing damage or serious injury. Arson investigators later found several spots along a local road where they believe the fire was deliberately set.

Some arsonists start fires by chucking emergency flares out car windows and into brush alongside roads. Others drop a time-delayed matchbook device into a patch of wild grass, giving themselves a chance to flee before the fire starts.

The brush fire arsonist--nicknamed "pyro" or "torch" by some investigators--is typically young, white, male and a loner, according to experts. He is difficult to catch because his motives are not as obvious as those of, for instance, someone who collects insurance on a fire-gutted building. The crime is generally executed in a remote area, deep in the brush or along a hiking trail.

Without an eyewitness--which is a rare stroke of luck--the only thing authorities can do is collect physical evidence and wait for the arsonist to strike again.

"Eventually, someone may get a license plate," Los Angeles arson investigator Tim Crass said on a recent afternoon, as he and partner Mike Camello canvassed the smoldering remains of a six-acre fire in the Sepulveda Pass. The blaze had scorched a hillside dotted with sumac bushes and willow grass next to the San Diego Freeway.

Weather conditions--warm, but not overly dry--pointed to an intentionally set blaze, as did the fact that another brush fire had occurred two days before 11/2 miles away in the same windblown pass.


Searching for Clues

A carelessly discarded cigarette, maybe? There were cigarette butts mixed with rocks and dried grass along the side of the freeway.

Not likely, said Camello, the lead investigator. There was too much moisture in the air and not enough dense brush for a lighted cigarette to cause real damage.

Shielded from traffic by a row of fire engines, Camello and Crass walked up and down a freeway shoulder crisscrossed by fire hoses and surveyed the length of the blackened hill. County fire crews looking for surviving hot spots dislodged dirt and rocks, which rolled down to where the investigators were working.

They already had an idea of where the fire had flared up, based on a witness account, but they needed to see if their own observations would lead them to the same source. They also needed to find an incendiary object, if possible.

The shape of the burned area--roughly three large Vs--pointed to three spots about 130 feet apart at the bottom of the hill. From there, the fire had spread out and up the hillside. The investigators looked at individual shrubs and found that they were more severely burned on the sides facing the points of origin.

Patiently examining the ashen terrain, they came upon the evidence they needed to rule the incident the handiwork of an arsonist. "Things look different after they burn up," Crass said. "But after looking at thousands of them, you start to recognize them."

After two hours' work, the investigators were satisfied with their conclusions.

By the arson unit's standards, a couple of brush fires in one area do not indicate a series. Ten or more suspicious fires, however, begin to look like the work of a serial arsonist. In such cases, fire officials set up patrols and surveillance.


Ease of Starting Fires

Statewide, arsons make up 10% to 15% of all vegetation fires, a smaller percentage than in Los Angeles. Most brush fires are started by mistake. Using a lawnmower without a spark arrester in brushy areas or parking a car with a hot undercarriage above dry grass are two examples.

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