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Friday, April 25, 2014

San Bernardino City Fire Facing Arson Fire Spike in Abandoned Homes and Businesses #CaFire

Calif. fire department sees jump in arson fires

An investigator says 46 of the 52 structure and car fires in the city since January could be the work of arsonists

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — There’s a new byproduct of troubled economic times and the city’s financial woes.
San Bernardino firefighters say structure fires have skyrocketed so far this year, compared to the first four months of last year. This time last year San Bernardino City firefighters battled 25 working structure fires compared to the 52 they've fought this year so far. “If you look at our city and the number of abandoned homes and businesses, that’s the primary factor in the number of fires we’re having to face right now,” said San Bernardino City Fire Chief George Avery. San Bernardino arson investigator Steve Tracy says 46 of the 52 structure and car fires in the city since January could be the work of arsonists.
“The arson rate in the last two years is off the chart for a city of this size,” Tracy said.
Some of the fires are suspected to have been accidentally or purposely started by transients squatting in abandoned structures. Fire officials say about 70 percent of the structures that have burned this year are abandoned buildings.
Investigators believe some of the squatters suspected in the fires are former jail inmates released as a result of prison realignment.
“When some of the inmates are released, they don’t necessarily have a place to go,” Tracy said. “Some of them are monitored by probation or parole, but some of them don’t have a place to live, so they’re left to live on the streets.”
They’re taking advantage of boarded-up and abandoned buildings and that’s what they’re calling home, he added.
“We see an influx of warming fires that get out of control when the weather is colder,” he said.
But not all of the blazes fit that description.
“Some of the fires have been started by squatters trying to strip copper wire of the plastic insulation in abandoned structures,” Tracy said. “They use a lighter to heat up the plastic and melt it away from the copper wire. When it drops, sometimes a fire breaks out.”
According to a witness in one neighborhood, one fire that injured a firefighter this week started through gang intimidation.
The witness, who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, said the three-alarm fire in the 3400 block of East 21st Street on Tuesday was started by gang members trying to intimidate nearby residents into paying them a “safety tax.”
“They try to intimidate us all of the time into paying them money so we could live safely from other gangs,” the witness said. “We have to live here because we can’t afford to live anywhere else and we’re being extorted by these thugs.”
That witness said if they go to the police, they are forced to give the “tax collector” more money.
“These thugs started this fire as a warning for us to pay them or else,” the witness said. “I’m not paying a dime, but I’m scared to even live here now.”
Arson investigators said even though the investigation into Tuesday’s three-alarm fire is ongoing, they’ve determined the cause was arson.
The department plans to work more closely with police since many of the fires are considered criminal acts.
“This is obviously another branch of crime that needs attention that we’ve committed our arson unit to as much as possible,” Avery said.
Avery said the hope is that a partnership will help generate solid evidence and, hopefully, more charges filed by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office against arsonists.
The department is also working with city officials on the overall socioeconomic issues contributing to the problem, Avery said.
“We are working with the city manager and the city attorney’s office to work with the code enforcement issues as far as the general blight and the abandoned homes that are just left in that state for years,” he said. “We are trying to find an opportunity to clean all of those up.”
But finding the resources to solve the problem could be a challenge, given the city’s struggle with bankruptcy, personnel and program cuts.
“With the amount of reductions we've faced over the years, it’s become even more challenging than ever,” Avery said.
Copyright 2014 San Bernardino County Sun

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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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