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L.A.-area residents fear arsonist may strike again

Twenty-one 'highly unusual' fires are set within a few hours in Hollywood and West Hollywood. Nearly all of them started with a vehicle being set ablaze, but flames also damaged several residences.

December 31, 2011|By Joel Rubin, Andrew Blankstein and Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times
  • Plumber Uri Oren works to clear a drain after an arson fire in the carport of an apartment building on Harper Avenue in West Hollywood. Twenty-one fires were set within hours in Hollywood and West Hollywood in one of the worst arson rampages in recent L.A. history.
Plumber Uri Oren works to clear a drain after an arson fire in the carport… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

The first call came in 25 minutes after midnight. A car parked in an underground garage in West Hollywood was engulfed in flames.

Three minutes later, firefighters responded to a second call a few blocks away.

Then a third. And a fourth.

Fire crews rolling out to one scene could hear dispatchers on their radios putting out the details of another. It didn't take long for fire officials to realize there was nothing coincidental about what was happening. They had an arsonist, or perhaps more than one, on their hands.

It would become, said Los Angeles Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda, "a night of managing chaos."

When dawn finally broke Friday, 21 fires smoldered throughout Hollywood and West Hollywood, making it one of the worst arson rampages in recent Los Angeles history.

Among the properties damaged was the Hollywood Hills home where The Doors' Jim Morrison once lived and which inspired his song "Love Street."

The night left L.A.-area residents on edge and investigators perplexed as they began the painstaking search for clues on who had set the fires and why.

Nearly all of the fires started with a vehicle being set ablaze. Several times, however, the flames jumped to nearby apartment buildings or houses, causing significant damage at some of the locations.

Estimates on the total cost of the damage were not available, although officials from the Los Angeles County Fire Department said that four fires set in West Hollywood alone destroyed about $350,000 worth of cars and property.

One firefighter suffered back and neck injuries and was taken to a hospital. His condition was not thought to be serious.

Investigators and experts said the fires were highly unusual for even a serial arsonist because of the sheer number of fires in a relatively short period of time. Officials have not said how the fires were set or whether they believe one or more people are responsible.

Of particular interest was Samuel Arrington, a 22-year-old from Sunland. Arrington was arrested Thursday on suspicion of starting three fires that day along a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in the same area as several of the fires that erupted hours later. Arrington was never released from custody after his arrest and arson investigators questioned him Friday in search of some link between him and the fires set Friday morning, officials said.

"It's too early to say whether we have a copycat," said Jaime Moore, a captain in the Los Angeles Fire Department.

In arson cases involving an initial set of fires followed by another, it is not unusual for someone unconnected to the first arsonist — a copycat — to have set the second group.

Residents and public safety officials alike expressed fear that the person or people responsible would ignite more fires in coming nights.

Another car fire broke out about 7:30 p.m. Friday in an underground garage in Hollywood in the 1600 block of North Sycamore Avenue. A team of investigators was immediately dispatched to the scene to look into the cause.

"We believe it's a good possibility that the individual responsible for the fires this morning is responsible for the fire that occurred tonight," Moore said.

Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department officials said they planned to deploy additional officers throughout the area and called on the public to keep watch for anything suspicious.

Staffing at city and county fire stations also will be upped. The city, county and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives put up a $60,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the culprit or culprits.

"Arsonists often like to watch fires they set," said sheriff's Det. Ed Nordskog. "Someone likely saw something they may not think was important, but all clues are good clues right now."

Fire and police officials described a night of mounting anxiety and helplessness as the calls piled up and the reality of the situation set in.

From 12:25 a.m. until shortly after 1 a.m., reports of five fires came in. Four were within a block or two of each other on residential streets off Santa Monica Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue. A fifth occurred about a mile north near Hollywood Boulevard.

An hourlong lull followed the initial barrage, giving firefighters a false sense of relief that the string had ended. At 2 a.m., the calls began anew. Convinced they were dealing with an arsonist, fire officials frantically started to map the fires in an attempt to find a pattern in their location and timing — all in an effort to decipher where the arsonist or arsonists would strike next.

The LAPD, meanwhile, went on a citywide tactical alert, meaning that officers remained on the job even after their shifts ended.

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