By Reggie Ellis
Capt. Mike Weger, arson investigator for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, announced last week that the more than 20 wildfires on the outskirts of Lindsay last month were probably all caused by the same person or group of people based on information from witnesses.
"We know that these fires were definitely not accidents because the locations are not near a road where someone could have carelessly thrown a cigarette out a window," Weger said. "Someone was working hard to set these fires. They had to walk up Elephant Back and deliberately try to start a fire."
Twenty acres of elephant back were burned at about 2 a.m. on June 11. This sparked a series of fires along the edge of Lindsay. On June 12 there was a fire at 3:58 a.m. on Fir Street and Harvard Avenue, another at 4:10 a.m. on Ash Avenue north of Tulare Road and another at 5:20 a.m. at Fir and Bellah Avenue.
The largest fire was set at 3:12 a.m. on June 15 consuming 300 acres on Elephant Back. Later that day a small grass fire was set at Foothill Avenue and Fir and two more that night on the north side of town. June 18 was the busiest day for firefighters in Lindsay as nine fires were reported in just under 90 minutes from 2:20 a.m. to 3:45 a.m. The scourge ended at about 11 p.m. on June 23 when a fire burned five acres at Lindsay Peak.
On June 18, Officer Heinks spotted two Hispanic male subjects riding mountain bikes near one of the fires. They dumped their bikes and took off on foot into the groves. Heinks estimated their ages from 16-20 years old, height from 5.5" to 5'9" and weight at approximately 140 pounds. Weger said no arrests have been made but there is a reward up to $10,000 for anyone who knows who set the fires.
"Someone knows who started those fires and it is only a matter of time before someone turns them in," Weger said.
Weger said the main motivation for starting fires is a toss up between revenge and notoriety.
"Although they don't tell anyone they set the fires they vicariously enjoy reading about what they have done in the press and on the news," Weger said. "They feel like they have accomplished something. It is twisted but no uncommon."
Weger said some arson fires are gang initiations, something they have to do to gain acceptance. Whatever the motivation, Weger said this has been one of the worst fire season for arson in many years. From Jan. 1 to July 1 of this year there have been 130 wildland arson fires compared to only 53 for the same period last year. And there have already been 20-30 since July 1 adding fuel to the problem. Weger said the higher frequency of arson fires may be due to the long duration of dry weather the Central Valley has experienced this year. The string of triple-digit days in May dried out the brush and grass earlier than normal years and there has been little precipitation since April to prevent the spread of grass fires.
"It may be that some of the cases throughout the county are listed as arson but may actually be accidents," Weger said. "Until we actually find the person that did it we are never sure of the intent or motivation."
Weger said not only do fires endanger lives they also affect the property owner. Elephant Back is used as pasture land and now the property owner must supplement the cattle's food source with bales of hay or other foods. The land will take at least another eight months to recover.
"That comes out of his pocket and eats into his profits," Weger said.
Capt. Weger advised that if anyone is spotted walking on Elephant Back at night, law enforcement should be notified. Additionally there is an arson hotline at 1-800-468-4408, or they can contact any state or county fire stations.
"We can offer up to a $10,000 reward that is funded by the governor and I have never been turned down for a request."