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Arson Likely in S.D. Fire

Officials say last fall's Paradise blaze, which killed two, may have been set by one or more serial arsonists. The investigation is ongoing.

March 08, 2004|Christiana Sciaudone | Times Staff Writer

Four months after wildfires raced through San Diego County's backcountry, officials have concluded that the Paradise fire was probably set by one or more serial arsonists.

The fire, one of two massive blazes that hit San Diego in October, started in the Valley Center area. The blaze burned more than 56,000 acres, destroyed 220 homes and killed two people.

Investigators said at least 15 other fires set in the same part of Valley Center over the last seven years were probably started by the same person or people.

The worst of those earlier fires occurred in 1996, blackening nearly 400 acres around what is today Harrah's Casino. All of them were traced to a five-acre area where the Paradise fire began, said Capt. Gary Eidsmoe of the California Department of Forestry.

Eidsmoe said the investigation was far from complete and that officials were still gathering evidence. He said the case was based largely upon interviews with more than 50 people, some of whom were in the area on Oct. 26, when the fire started.

These witnesses have led investigators to the possibility that two or three people might have set the fire together, he said. Officials are not sure of a motive or whether those who set it knew the fire would get out of control.

"A lot of time arsonists do it alone," Eidsmoe said. "But due to the fact that it might have been just reckless firesetting, two or three people might have been involved."

On the basis of evidence they have gathered, investigators have officially classified the Paradise fire as arson and are expected to issue a reward of as much as $10,000 for information leading to the conviction of whoever set the blaze. Arson charges could lead to 10 years in prison. Manslaughter charges might also apply.

News of the arson finding didn't surprise Valley Center resident Sam Boulos, who had watched from her hillside home as the Paradise fire burned two miles away.

"It looks like somebody did it because, in the beginning, it looked like it started in scattered places," said Boulos, owner of the town deli, Country Junction Deli.

Boulos was not fazed by the news of a possible serial arsonist, since Valley Center, a town of about 7,300, is prone to fires anyway.

"In our area it's a very big possibility," she said, "because it's very green here. There are lots of trees."

The Paradise fire, so named because it began near Paradise Creek Road on the Rincon Indian Reservation, started about 1:15 a.m. Oct. 26.

The conditions last fall in Valley Center, which is nearly 40 miles northeast of San Diego, were perfect for a blaze, Eidsmoe said. After the fire started, Santa Ana winds swept the flames over dry brush.

Valley Center residents Ashleigh Roach, 16, and Nancy Morphew, 51, were killed within hours of the fire's start. Roach was in a car with her siblings, trying to drive away from the fire. The flames caught up to the vehicle, and Roach couldn't get out in time. The teen was an Irish dancer and had hoped to attend Dublin's Trinity University.

Morphew died as she was trying to climb out of a ravine where she had accidentally driven her truck. Morphew, a horse trainer and riding coach, was trying to save the 10 Arabian horses on her property.

From the beginning, investigators knew the Paradise fire would be a tough one.

The day the fire started was one of the worst for fire in California history. The Cedar fire, which killed 14 people, was raging south of the Paradise fire, while several blazes in San Bernardino County also were burning out of control.

Eidsmoe went to the Valley Center scene within three hours of the fire's start.

"I went up there and after a quick assessment of the fire ... I went off to try and find the area where the fire might have started," he said.

He said he immediately suspected arson because the ignition source at the origin of the fire was missing.

According to Metts Hardy, a fire investigator for the private firm Engineering and Fire Investigations, lack of a fire source does not necessarily impede an investigation.

"If they are able to eliminate other conditions as factors, they can make a reasonable conclusion or inference that it was an externally applied ignition -- in other words, it wasn't lightning or an act of God," Hardy said.

Eidsmoe, 51, has been an investigator for 13 years and has worked on about 500 outdoor fire investigations.

"This case looks like it may have been a hot start -- after the fire was lit, the arsonist took the evidence with him," Eidsmoe said.

Authorities have been counting on witnesses to guide them, but they expected few, if any, in the Paradise case because of the remote location and time of night. But employees of Harrah's Casino on their way home saw the start of a small fire that night and reported it to authorities.

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