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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRESTORMS

Residue Sifted for Clues to Arson

Three San Bernardino County blazes are called suspicious. Two men are sought in the Old fire.

October 27, 2003|Matt Lait and Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writers

Even as firefighters battle blazes throughout Southern California, dozens of arson investigators are looking for clues to determine how many, if any, were intentionally ignited.

In San Bernardino County, three separate fires are being called suspicious, officials said Sunday. Investigators from the U.S. Forest Service, the San Bernardino County and city fire and police departments, the California Highway Patrol, and the California Department of Forestry sifted through mounds of embers and ash for evidence, interviewed potential witnesses and asked the public for help.

Two young males are being sought for murder as well as arson in connection with the so-called Old fire, which had destroyed more than 300 homes by Sunday. A 93-year-old man and a 73-year-old man died of heart attacks as their homes burned.

"When you have a death that occurred during arson ... that is a possible homicide," said San Bernardino County Sheriff's Det. Gina Perez. "We have two of them."

Generally, arsons are tough to solve, especially when they happen in rural or forest areas, experts said.

Often, no witnesses are around when the arsonist acts. By the time the fire has grown enough to be noticed, the arsonist frequently is miles away. And such fires are often set with matches or lighters instead of explosives or elaborate devices that might be more traceable.

"We use basic police work," said Paul Steensland, a senior special agent with the U.S. Forest Service who specializes in fire investigations. "The first thing we do is find the origin of the fire and start from there."

Investigators look for what ignited the blaze, scour the ground for tire or shoe impressions, and search for witnesses.

"Sometimes the person who sets the fire thinks he's alone, but there is a hiker or bird-watcher out there who may have seen something," Steensland said.

Most arsonists are male, white and between the ages of 16 and 30, several experts said. They typically are unemployed or underemployed and have dropped out of school around the 10th grade. Often, they are viewed as social misfits. They tend to commit their crimes alone and keep quiet about it.

"Most of the time, these people have no concern about the forests or people or property," said David Sneed, president of the International Assn. of Arson Investigators. "They do it out of pure mischief, knowing that the fire will develop into a much larger event, which they get some sort of satisfaction from."

Some of the state's most destructive fires over the years have been attributed to arson, such as the 1993 fires in Laguna Beach and Malibu, which destroyed more than 700 homes and burned 32,000 acres.

Timothy G. Huff, a former FBI analyst who profiled arsonists, said their motives typically fell into one of six categories: to cover up another crime; for revenge; for profit; for excitement; extremism (for example, animal rights or abortion activists); and vandalism. Each one of those reasons is seen as a desire to express some sort of power. Revenge, Huff said, is the most common motive. "This type of arsonist feels he's received a bum deal in life."

On Sunday, few details were released about the ongoing arson probes. But investigators had some information to go on. In the Old fire, a witness stopped on California 18 on Saturday noticed a gray van, possibly a 2000 or 2001 Chevrolet Venture or Dodge model, parked on Old Waterman Canyon Road.

The witness saw someone in the van throw something into the brush, which may have started the fire. The driver made a U-turn and drove south.

Other fires being investigated as suspicious include a blaze that began about 6 p.m. Saturday in a campground west of Crestline; San Bernardino County's largest fire, the Grand Prix; a fire in Riverside County's Reche Canyon that destroyed four homes; and a small fire in Verdugo Hills. The latter three blazes broke out Tuesday.

Anyone with information on any of the fires is asked to call (866) 346-7632.

"I hope whoever did this realizes they've taken lives, they've taken property," said Tracy Martinez, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. The fires they set, she said, could "spread to someone [they] know, too, family or friend."

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