Investigators Probe Fires' Origins

Nine fires have burned in San Diego County since Tuesday

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Janisse Flores
    Photo taken by resident in Escondido, California - Janisse Flores, a John Paul the Great Catholic University College Student from the 5th floor of her apartment complex Latitude 33 a little over 10 miles away from the fire evacuated zone.

    After nine separate fires sparked in widely different locations and times around the county, questions are being raised about what caused the brush fires that burned more than 9,000 acres around San Diego this week.

    Some may have thought the mystery was solved Thursday afternoon when Escondido police questioned a man after getting calls about some suspicious behaviour near Stone Brewery. Police officials in the city quickly dispelled that theory, though, after officers and arson investigators "absolutely ruled out" any connection the man may have had to any of the fires.

    The news of additional brush fires in North County was a bewildering experience to wake up to on Wednesday for residents already concerned about the status of the Bernardo Fire, which sparked on Tuesday and burned hundreds of acres but, improbably, no homes. That good news, and still more about firefighters having contained 25 percent of that blaze, soon gave way upon learning of fires in Carlsbad, Bonsall/Fallbrook and on Camp Pendleton. As the day progressed, officials announced that a small fire had started in Escondido, then another in Scripps Ranch. Thankfully, both of those were quickly extinguished. 

    If residents didn’t have suspicions already, San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn raised the spectre of an arsonist at work while delivering a statement at a news conference on Wednesday evening  in Carlsbad.

    "I question whether or not six fires haven’t been set by somebody – that’s just my thought, but I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years, and I’ve had one or two fires but never anything like this," Horn said.

    Shortly after, Horn was asked to follow up on his statement.

    "I’ve been through the Witch Creek Fire … the Cedar Fire," Horn said. "Those were big fires, but they were all connected. If you notice, all these are separate [pointing]. First we started with this one [pointing], then we went to Camp Pendleton – it didn’t start in the middle of the base; it started at the ammo dump on the Fallbrook side. And then we went to the freeway fire, and that’s where [state Route 76] and [Interstate] 15 come together.… I guess we now have [a fire near Lakeside]. So that brings us to [seven]. So that’s an issue for me."

    However, Horn soon added that his speculation was just that.

    "I have no evidence," Horn said. "I’ve been on this fire all day, I’ve been in Fallbrook and I’ve been in San Marcos, so that is the extent. I’m just telling you what I’m thinking."

    Horn was not alone in his conjecture, however, and by Thursday morning, the Carlsbad Police Department had set up a hotline for tips on what is now being called the Poinsettia Fire, which charred 400 acres, and destroyed four homes and a condominium complex made up of 18 units. Anybody with information about suspicious activity was being urged to call 760-602-7599 or email PoinsettiaFire@carlsbadca.gov. Later on Thursday, San Diego Fire Rescue urged anybody with "tips, suspect information or relevant fire information" to call San Diego Crime Stoppers at 619-235-TIPS (8477). Authorities said a reward may be offered for information that leads to a conviction.

    By Thursday morning, suspicions may have spiked for some, coming on the news of additional fires in Oceanside in Lakeside, and a very destructive blaze in San Marcos that destroyed three homes and burned 800 acres. However, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, a fixture at news conferences since Tuesday, reminded residents that there could be other, less nefarious reasons for all the fires.
    "I don’t want to pre-judge anything -- investigations will be done between fire and our bomb-arson squad into the origin of every fire," Gore told the media. "We just don’t know at this time, and I think it would be just pure speculation. Sure, we had a lot of fires, but you have to look at the conditions we’re in. The grass out there is nothing but kindling for these fires, and we had winds, you know, very high speeds. It only takes -- I was told by CalFire -- a few hundred degrees to ignite that grass. Catalytic converters, when sparks come off of that, or pieces come out, we're talking 2,500 or 3,000 degrees. So, I say: We’ll do thorough investigations of each and every fire, and find out its origin, but to comment before that investigation is done would be premature."
    Jeff Carle, a retired assistant chief with the San Diego Fire Department, spent 20 years investigating suspicious fires. He told NBC 7 on Thursday that he thought it was possible that an arsonist may be responsible for at least some of them.
    "I think it’s a very good chance it’s arson," Carle said. "But you have to have a very deliberate process [to determine] that it was, in fact, arson."
    That process requires a very thorough probe, Carle said, stressing that investigators can’t jump to conclusions. Still, Carle thinks there are good reasons to investigate.
    "There’s a high likelihood it’s arson, based on time of day, temperatures and the locations of fires in Carlsbad," Carle told NBC 7.
      
    Carle said that no one, including Horn, should jump to any conclusions about the cause of those fires and whether it was arson. While Carle said that "fires don’t just start by magic, no matter how hot it is," he stressed that it was too early to make any statements about the cause of the fires and that he thought it was premature for Horn to comment and smart for Gore to jump in and temper Horn’s comments about the suspicion of arson.
    Near the end of Thursday's news conference, Gore said there was no substitute for vigilance by county deputies and residents.
    "Everybody, obviously, is aware of what’s going on in San Diego County, including our deputies, who, during routine patrols would be vigilant to see any suspicious activity," Gore said. "Plus, anything that’s been reported to us by citizens who see anything will be immediately followed up on."

    On Thursday afternoon, Escondido police officers detained a possible arson suspect for questioning after reports of "suspicious behavior."

    However, that person was released after questioning and did not appear to have any connection to the fires, officials said.