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Boy, 16, suspected in a dozen arson fires in San Bernardino County

Authorities believe he may have started the Pendleton and Oak Glen fires and others over the last three years.

September 25, 2009|Andrew Blankstein and Catherine Saillant

A 16-year-old boy seen riding a bike away from a brush fire near Yucaipa on Wednesday is suspected of starting a dozen fires that ravaged the area over the last three years, including two large blazes earlier this month.

San Bernardino County prosecutors said they were still weighing what charges to bring against the high school student, who was not immediately identified because of his age.

Authorities said he has been linked to recent blazes, including the 860-acre Pendleton fire that destroyed two structures and the Oak Glen fire that charred more than 1,100 acres.

"It's early in the investigation, but we are looking at him in connection with multiple fires," said Dist. Atty. Michael A. Ramos.

"It's a very serious case," he said. "Our county has had its share of fires in the last decade that have destroyed peoples' property, peoples' homes and peoples' lives."

Investigators would not reveal what evidence links the various fires. The boy was arrested Wednesday when witnesses saw him riding his bike away from a fire that had just started in the Crofton Hills area.

Officials said it was odd to have a large number of fires in a small area, suggesting that someone in the area might be setting them.

"That's a small area to have this intense of a fire siege," said Doug McKain, a unit chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "There were a lot of evacuations. It impacted a lot of people."

The case marks the second high-profile arrest of a suspected juvenile arsonist in less than a month. Last week, a 13-year-old El Monte boy was charged with two felonies in connection with the Aug. 25 Morris fire, which consumed more than 2,100 acres north of Azusa, prosecutors said. The youth is accused of felony arson of a forest and recklessly setting fire to a forest or structure.

In 2005, of 1,467 arson arrests in California, 52% involved juveniles, according to the California Department of Justice. Nationwide, an FBI report found that in 2003, 50.8% of those arrested on suspicion of arson were juveniles; a third of the total arrests in arsons were of children under 15 and 3% were of those under age 10.

Meanwhile, firefighters battling the 16,400-acre Guiberson fire in Ventura County took advantage of relatively light winds Thursday to attack flare-ups emerging on the northeast edge of the three-day-old blaze.

From the tiny Piru community east of Fillmore, a giant column of smoke could be seen throughout the day as air and ground crews worked to halt the flames' advance, said Capt. Ron Oatman, a Ventura County Fire Department spokesman.

But for the most part, the fire has slowed considerably and is no longer posing a threat to Moorpark, Somis and other communities on its southern flank, Oatman said. All evacuations and road closures have been canceled except in one small area near Somis, he said.

"We're right on track," he said. "We had the weather we expected today, hot and dry. And the wind wasn't as bad as it could have been."

Full containment of the month-old Station fire in the Angeles National Forest was expected late Thursday.

Aircraft on Thursday were patrolling the interior of the 160,577-acre blaze to extinguish hot spots that remain in steep and rugged terrain that can't be reached by ground crews.

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

kay.saillant@latimes.com

Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim and David Kelly contributed to this article.

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