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With Suspicious Eyes, Investigators Seek Cause Of Fires

Evening Edition

Aired 5/16/14 on KPBS News.

Arson investigators are probing the origins of nine major fires across San Diego County.

Arson investigators with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department are probing the causes of nine fires that have scorched the region the past several days.

The big question for them: How did the fires start? Was it Mother Nature? An accident? Or was it something sinister like arson?

“Everyone thinks these fires are suspicious, but what we think and what we know are two separate things,” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said. “We’ll do a thorough investigation of each and every fire and try to find out its origin.”

Gore said deputies have talked to witnesses who were on the scene shortly after the 17-acre Lakeside fire started on Wednesday afternoon.

“We need more witnesses,” he said.

The sheriff urged the public to come forward with any information about the origins of the fires.

Each of the fires is being treated as a crime scene.

That is standard, said Russell Steppe, captain of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s Metro Arson Strike Team.

He said investigators are likely looking for evidence of incendiary devices.

“It could be cigarettes,” Steppe said. “It could be matches. It could be flares or chemical substances.”

Part of the investigation will include looking at fire patterns and direction, which can be discerned from rocks and the sides of trees.

Several fires in this region over the past decade or so were found to be the work of arsonists.

Rickie Lee Fowler, 31, is on Death Row after being convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson for starting a fire that ravaged the hills east of Los Angeles.

Prosecutors said Fowler lit a fire in October 2003 out of rage after he was thrown out of a house where his family was staying.

And at least five suspected arsonists were arrested in connection with more than a dozen fires that raged from San Diego to Los Angeles in 2007. They burned more than 500,000 acres and 1,800 houses and killed at least eight people, including homeowners and illegal immigrants who were camped in the desert scrub. Another suspect rammed his pickup into a police car and was shot dead by police.

While the number of fires that erupted in San Diego County in rapid succession over the past three days has triggered suspicions about possible arson, weather and a changing climate made conditions ripe for blazes.

California is in the middle of a three-year drought. Grass, brush and trees throughout the county are dry.

“There’s a possibility that there may be a link to the climate change process,” Rick Halsey said, director of Escondido’s Chaparral Institute, which studies fires.

Scientists predict that drought, extreme heat and more severe fires will be part of California’s future.

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