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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Investigators Have Clearer Picture of Who Started Fires

A hunter linked to a huge San Diego County blaze is named, and arson suspects emerge.

October 29, 2003|David Pierson and Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writers

Investigators on Tuesday made significant progress in tracking down those responsible for suspicious fires ravaging Southern California, identifying the alleged arsonist in a Ventura County blaze and uncovering two witnesses to the intentionally set fire that threatens to lay waste to the San Bernardino Mountains.

San Diego County sheriff's officials on Tuesday also said they were "absolutely positive" that a hunter from West Covina had ignited the so-called Cedar blaze, which has scorched 210,000 acres and killed nine people, when he launched a rescue flare after becoming lost in the wilderness.

However, the hunter's father steadfastly denied that his son, 33-year-old Sergio Martinez, had done anything wrong.

"He has nothing to worry about," Fillo Martinez, 56, said outside his West Covina home. "He said to me, 'Don't worry, Daddy.' "

Authorities suspect arson in at least four wildfires in San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The biggest break announced Tuesday came in the blaze near Lake Piru in Ventura County, which has charred more than 50,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest.

Jerry Moore, a U.S. Forest Service special agent who supervises the law enforcement division, said an arson suspect had confessed to starting the Piru fire. Moore declined to name the suspect and provided no other details.

Moore said the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles was investigating the suspect. Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney, said that no one had been taken into custody in connection with the fire and that no one had been charged.

In San Bernardino County, arson investigators appealed for the public's help after releasing a sketch of a suspect in the so-called Old fire, which has destroyed 550 homes in San Bernardino and Devore, led to four deaths and threatens to overrun Lake Arrowhead and other mountain communities.

The suspect was seen driving a light gray van from the spot where the Old fire was set Saturday morning on Waterman Canyon Road above San Bernardino. A $60,000 reward was announced for information leading to the capture and conviction of those responsible. Anyone with information was asked to call authorities at (866) 346-7632.

San Bernardino County sheriff's homicide investigator Bobby Dean said "a couple" of people had been questioned about the Old fire but had been released after it was determined that they had not been involved.

Authorities said there was no evidence linking the Old fire to the Grand Prix fire, which started near Fontana. That arson fire has scorched more than 57,000 acres and destroyed more than 75 homes, from Lytle Creek to Claremont.

Tim Sappok of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said arson investigators looking into the Grand Prix fire had interviewed witnesses who had seen "individuals behind a gate who aroused suspicions."

The fire began in Fontana at 2:22 p.m. on Oct. 21 on private land separated from the new Hunter's Ridge home development by a chain-link fence and a closed gate. No ignition devices were found at the spot where the fire started.

Sappok said some witness had spoken of seeing a suspicious person on a green motorcycle in the area around the time that flames were first spotted, and several tracks from a motorcycle or off-road vehicle were near the scene.

"We don't know if the tracks we found are significant," one investigator said.

In San Diego, authorities said they had a much clearer picture of the Cedar fire. Sergio Martinez, who become lost and disoriented on a deer hunt, hoped to attract rescuers by shooting a flare, which ignited a brush fire when it landed, said Moore, the U.S. Forest Service special agent.

The helicopter pilot who rescued Martinez said the hunter was found upwind from a blaze covering an area about 50 yards square.

After landing on a rugged slope, the pilot and his partner dragged a dehydrated and delirious Martinez to safety.

"My partner said to him, 'You start the fire?' " said the pilot, San Diego County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Weldon. "He said, 'No.' Then he looked at the fire and said, 'I'm sorry for all of this.' He then kept apologizing."

Weldon said Martinez had been taken to a waiting ambulance in an unincorporated area near Ramona.

There he was interviewed at length by a Forest Service officer and given a citation.

He did not need major medical attention and was released, Weldon said.

"We're absolutely positive he's the one who started the fire," Weldon said. "If he waited another 10 minutes, we would have found him" without the flare.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego said an investigation was underway but had been hampered by the wildfire.

Fillo Martinez said his son was grateful to the deputies who had found him.

The father described his son as a lover of nature who hiked often and went hunting two or three times a year. The son was not available for comment.

The elder Martinez did not say what his son did for a living but described him as an "educated man" who studied accounting in college.

"He has dignity and good morals," the father said. "He didn't set a fire."

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