Fresno rocked by suspicious fires, possibly by serial arsonists

The Fresno BeeJuly 5, 2014 

More than 160 suspicious Fresno fires — half of them deemed arson — over the past two months has city fire investigators carefully studying the alarming activity for clues.

"There's good reason for me to still be concerned that our significant serialists are at-large," said Don MacAlpine, the city's deputy fire marshal. "I don't want the public to be alarmed, but I certainly don't want them dropping their guard."

MacAlpine has seen a lot of fires over his 27-year career with the department, but nothing quite like this.

To put it in perspective, he's examined nearly 7,000 fires since becoming a fire investigator in 1999. He's helped solve many high-profile blazes, like the 2003 University Village fire near Fresno State — the city's largest in size and estimated loss.

"But those pale in comparison to what we've been experiencing since May 1," MacAlpine said.

What makes the latest string so significant?

"It's not necessarily the size," he said, adding only a few have hit large commercial buildings. "I think what's more concerning to me is the possibility, if not probability, that we've got more than one serialist … serialists are not that common, in my experience."

From May 1 through July 2, investigators have looked into 193 fires — more than double the number investigated during the same time last year.

Of those, 84 were deemed arson and 83 are still under investigation, MacAlpine said. Between those two groups, 126 are being investigated as serial incidents, meaning they could be connected.

Fire patterns, big hits

Investigators have sorted those 126 suspicious Fresno fires into five categories.

MacAlpine said the largest clusters have occurred in these areas:

Downtown: Of buildings hit here, almost all are vacant.

The Tulare corridor, between Tulare and Olive avenues.

Southeast Fresno, south of Kings Canyon Road and north of Church Avenue.

Calwa, also in southeast Fresno.

Along highways, many between 99 and 41 and north to 180.

All those areas have been struck pretty evenly, resulting in millions of dollars worth of damages, MacAlpine said.

Investigators have been paying extra attention to unfolding patterns since a May 2 fire engulfed two large storage warehouses near Fresno Yosemite International Airport. While the cause of that one is officially undetermined, MacAlpine said he is "very confident" that one wasn't arson.

About two weeks later, on May 17, a large abandoned packing house caught fire downtown on G Street, between Tulare and Kern streets. Investigation into that fire is ongoing.

Investigation continues for a May 29 blaze that destroyed an abandoned tire building. Four days later, two arson fires rocked the Fulton Mall within a couple of hours: late June 2 in the Helm building and early June 3 at Procter's Jewelers.

Unlike the jewelry store, which was a total loss, the Helm building was saved by basement fire sprinklers. While damage was low, evidence was disturbing. Fire spokesman Koby Johns said three fires were extinguished and a gas line was found severed and left on.

A recent large arson fire occurred Tuesday, burning much of vacant Fantastic Furniture in central Fresno, at Blackstone and Michigan avenues. An adjoining tattoo parlor was destroyed. The fire is not considered part of the 126 serial incidents, but that could change.

A person can be seen on police surveillance video throwing a lighted object over the wall of the building. It was also determined the arsonist tagged the building with graffiti.

Looking for arsonists

Since May, investigators have arrested nine people related to suspicious fires.

All of those suspects weren't likely involved in serial arson, MacAlpine said, but downtown fires have quieted down since.

Yet southeast Fresno especially is still being hit "pretty hard and heavy" and indiscriminately.

He said it's possible some related arson activity goes back before May 1, and that many fires could be related.

"We clearly have an issue. We're (fire investigators) trying to get to every scene."

It's also possible suspects could be working together and that some arson fires are just "copycats."

As for more possible details: "Any number of these fires has a (human) nature to it that's not unusual for juvenile behavior. But there's a significant number of these that clearly goes beyond the typical juvenile behavior, which has our interest."

Serial arsonists are different from other kinds of criminals, he said.

"In my career, I've had a small number of true serialists that I've dealt with that have very unusual psychological problems, and it's very concerning. Their lack of care for other people or other emotions … I tell staff, 'Don't try and figure out why someone did it based on your experience or your reasoning because especially when we're getting into serialists, you're not going to think like they think."

But, he said, "You can try and get ahead of their moves, based on patterns or expectations."

Traditional arsonist motives are a sense of power and excitement, but "it's different than our classic criminal where there's revenge, there's greed, there's excitement of some kind, but on a more juvenile scale of excitement — not thinking through the consequences."

Those kinds of criminals feel remorse and regret — either for being caught or for what they did, he said. But not an arsonist.

"When I'm talking with them, it's like talking to a wall. Dialogue is based on a whole other level of exchange."

How to help, stay safe

A significant number of recent arson fires were in vacant buildings, so keeping properties occupied can keep them from becoming the next target, MacAlpine said. Code enforcement, law enforcement and neighbors are also working together to keep vacant properties secure.

As for the public, be aware of your surroundings, he said: Notice when dogs are barking or an unknown person is loitering in a neighborhood.

And help fire investigators solve crimes by being a good witness, like snapping a photo of a possible suspect or by calling 911. Just don't put yourself in harm's way, MacAlpine said.

Within the last few weeks, he said, investigators have been getting much better tips. "Witness information is invaluable," MacAlpine said. "When people do help, it makes a huge difference. …

"I need all of us. I need everybody up to the plate and taking their best swing at it. I'm depending on that because there's no way I can do it alone; there's no way my staff can do it alone.

"That's what I hope people understand, that they help participate in keeping their environment safe."


How to help fire investigators

Witness tips about Fresno fires can be shared the following ways:

• Contact Don MacAlpine, deputy fire marshal, at (559) 621-4440, email him at Donald.MacAlpine@fresno.gov or call Crime Stoppers at (559) 498-STOP.

• Call 911 if you see a fire starting or dangerous/suspicious activity already underway.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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