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Park blazes were arson

A single person may have set seven Griffith fires in three weeks. All started near roads, officials note.

August 19, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Joanna Lin | Times Staff Writers

L.A. fire officials declared Monday that the seven fires in Griffith Park over the last three weeks were deliberately set, and investigators are trying to determine whether they are dealing with a single serial arsonist.

Fire officials believe the person or people who set the fire were on foot or in a vehicle, perhaps posing as bicyclists or hikers to blend with the park crowd, said Rosa Tufts, a Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigator.

"The one consistent item that we've seen is that all the fires are being set by the roadside," Tufts told The Times. "This is definitely a crime of opportunity."

The string of fires, culminating with five small fires in remote sections of the park Saturday afternoon, have put nearby Los Feliz residents and longtime park users on edge.

"We're just reeling from this, to be honest with you," said Bernadette Soter, a member of the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council. "There seems to be a pattern here. We just don't know what's behind the pattern. How do you control an arsonist?"

Soter said her neighbors were calling for more park rangers to patrol less-traveled areas of the park.

On Monday, fire officials said they had added patrols but were surprised to see so many blazes ignite at the park in just a few weeks.

"In recent history, this is the most amount of fires in such a short period" in the park, said Senior Arson Investigator David Liske, a 26-year veteran.

Investigators said Saturday's five fires near the Travel Town railroad museum were probably set by the same person, but the fires on Aug. 4 and July 27 could be the work of others.

Fire officials have not released suspect descriptions in connection with the recent fires because no sightings have been reported, Tufts said. On Saturday, police detained a bicyclist, but he was later released.

Investigators have no evidence of what was used to start the fires. Tufts said they do not believe the fires were set as campfires by recreational park visitors or homeless campers because they burned in areas the homeless do not frequent, and because no trash or clothing was found nearby.

The Aug. 4 blaze burned three acres in the northeast corner of the park near Mineral Wells Trail and was brought under control in an hour and a half.

The July 27 fire burned 25 acres, prompted the evacuation of thousands from the Los Angeles Zoo and briefly threatened a breeding center for endangered California condors.

Earlier this month, fire officials met with park rangers and police to discuss expanding park patrols and possibly restricting park access, Liske said. They are encouraging park regulars to report unusual activity, including people using lighters, road flares or campfires or smoking in restricted areas.

"We're going to have to rely on the assistance of the public," Liske said. "It would be frequent park travelers who would recognize if something is out of the ordinary."

Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge plans to meet with hikers at the park ranger station at 4730 Crystal Springs Drive at 6 p.m. today to discuss the fires. City fire, police, water, parks and recreation and council staff plan to meet at the park Wednesday morning to discuss the fires, LaBonge's staff said.

LaBonge said park groups needed to become more vigilant. He contacted the park's equestrian club Monday, and he said he planned to talk to the Sierra Club's Griffith Park group.

"Everyone is a suspect," LaBonge said. "There is an attack on the park."

Joe Young, 62, said he planned to attend today's meeting at the park to learn more about what hikers can do to help catch the arsonist.

Young helps lead the Griffith Park planning task force and the Griffith Park section of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club, organizing hikes and monitoring the park's growth.

"Any fire in Griffith Park is a tragedy," Young said. "It's a gem of a resource for the city of Los Angeles. Any damage to that park is heartbreaking. Hikers and anyone else should always be vigilant wherever and whenever they go to the park."

The fires are particularly dangerous given dry conditions in the park, officials said.

"We're just very mindful based on the number of incidents we've had and the lack of rainfall," said fire Battalion Chief Michael Thomas, who was at the fire scene Saturday.

Last year, Griffith Park suffered its worst fire in three decades. That fire burned one-quarter of the park, about 1,200 acres, sending up plumes of smoke, destroying popular hiking areas and leaving some hillsides still scorched.

At the time, a suspect described as a man in his 20s who lived out of state was questioned and eventually cited on suspicion of smoking in a restricted area. No criminal charges have been filed in the case, which remains under investigation, LaBonge said.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

joanna.lin@latimes.com

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