Calexico Fire Chief Diego Favila (far left, white helmet) can be seen speaking with police and fire officials after crews had extinguished yet another suspected arson fire around 5 a.m. Monday, Oct. 11, in the 100 block of Sheridan Street. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
CALEXICO — After a harrowing three days in which six fires were suspected to be linked to an ongoing epidemic of arsons, firefighters have now worked a total of 31 blazes ignited to do harm or cause damage since March, a Calexico fire official said.
On Monday morning, Oct. 11, Calexico firefighters and assisting agencies from around the Imperial Valley battled what appeared to be the most significant of the suspected arsons in recent weeks after an apartment fire in the 100 block of Sheridan Street on the city’s west side displaced a number of occupants.
Calexico fire Capt. Eduardo Rivera said the fire that started at a shed, spread to a second shed, a fence and to the rear portion of an apartment was “intentionally set” and continued a busy weekend that saw four of five fires on Saturday and another on Sunday, Oct. 10, all classified as suspected arsons.
Some six residents and pets had reportedly been displaced by fire that started before 5 a.m., and the American Red Cross was called in to help around 5:30 a.m., according to radio scanner reports. Calexico Fire Department was cleared from scene around 6:30 a.m.
The Sunday fire was small and set in a pile of clothes inside a business at 117 Heffernan Ave., although Rivera said little information on that one, including the time of call.
In the cases where arson is being investigated, no suspects have been taken into custody in what Rivera agreed has been a sharp increase in the number of “intentionally set” fires that began following a move in mid-July/August by police to clear out homeless encampments from private properties on Cesar Chavez Boulevard between Legion Park and the shopping center that once housed Garcia Foods.
Neither Rivera nor Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo would answer whether the fires on Saturday night, Oct. 9, were thought to be directly connected to the same suspect or suspects in the previous fires of the last two-plus weeks and more, or whether this new grouping was a copycat.
In all, Calexico fire officials have been dealing with a more malicious wave of fire activity for some months, Rivera said early Sunday as he drew a sharp distinction between the usual high number of fires caused by transients over the past few years and what has been occurring of late.
On Oct. 4, a monthly meeting of the fire captains with their chief put a lot of this into perspective, Rivera said, after which he was charged with going over reports and collecting data on previous fires to make a clear separation between the current spate of arsons with suspected malicious intent and those that have been set by transients for the purposes of cooking, warming or for providing illumination, he said.
The meeting involved “information sharing amongst the shifts, making sure everybody was on the same page as to what’s going on in the area. We did pass along information as far as how we’re going to approach these fires. I think, at this point right now, that’s the stuff that we’re going to kind of kind of internal,” Rivera said during an interview on Oct. 10, “Again, our goal is to determine if it’s arson or not … that’s it’s not intentionally set.”
After that meeting is when Rivera determined that between March and Oct. 4, some 24 fires fit the parameters of those thought to be intentionally lighted to cause property damage. With Saturday’s back-to-back calls and Sunday and Monday’s fires, Rivera said he felt confident in saying that six additional fires can be added to that list.
Saturday’s fires saw the area of concentration creeping east, the captain explained. Most of the fires in recent weeks — and the majority over the past six months — have been west of Imperial Avenue and south of Highway 98/Birch Avenue.
A fifth fire, north of the city, that ignited brush off Scaroni Road, did not appear to fit authorities’ criteria for suspected arsons, but Rivera added on Sunday, he wouldn’t rule anything out at this point.
If the Oct. 11 Sheridan Street apartment fire does end up being grouped with the suspicious fires, that site is west of Imperial Avenue, a return to the concentrated areas of the others.
While three of the four fires on Saturday were either minor or isolated to vacant buildings, one blaze had the potential to get out of control and almost did, Rivera said, referring to a fire set in a pair Dumpsters in the alley behind a business at 243 E. Second St., identified as both Patron Loco Loco and Loco Clothing.
Rivera said the fire started in the Dumpsters was flush against the back of the building in the alley and had lit the wooden area of the roof of the business, where the flame then made its way into a storeroom.
“All of our fires downtown always pose a lot of challenges … there’s just so much old construction, old wiring, you know, it’s from a time that things were very much different,” Rivera said. “Luckily, we had a cinderblock wall between (the connected businesses) so that really helps with prevention of fire spread.”
Also, he said the owners of the business made a very smart call to close a door to the storeroom before leaving. Rivera said had that door been open, the fire assuredly would have spread farther into the business and probably destroyed everything inside.
Saturday night was not the worst the Fire Department has faced, Rivera explained, but he said it was pretty intense. Fortunately, he said a slow shift for medical aids (and the firefighters who must attend to them) allowed fire crews to be at full strength to deal with the incidents.
At 7:01 p.m., crews were called out to 1037 Rockwood Ave., just a block north of a suspected arson they responded to on Oct. 1.
As soon as the tones sounded in the fire station, Rivera said, they knew exactly the home crews would be responding to. Although he would not say how many vacant homes and buildings there are in Calexico, the department has been taking stock of potential sites where an arsonist or arsonists might strike to be better prepared.
“That fire started on the rear of the property outside, but the fire did breach the outside wall and it did affect the back room. We were able to extinguish it and prevent any further extension to the remainder of the property,” River said, adding police arrived before fire crews and help get to the fire source through a fence.
“There were no witnesses, there were no injuries, and fire crews were able to put it out and prevent anything from extending to a furniture business to the north,” he added.
The yard to the house was full of small appliances, clothing, rubbish, and all sorts of combustible materials. Rivera wouldn’t say whether any accelerants were used.
Due to the stepped-up nature of the investigations, the captain said many details about accelerants used or found, exact points of origin, or any information that might compromise authorities’ abilities to find the serial fire-starter or starters will be withheld.
While crews were still dealing with the Rockwood fire, a call came in to respond to a Dumpster fire at 444 Imperial Ave., behind the Arco off Imperial and Fifth Street. That fire required little effort, but Rivera said police were able to get video from area and were reviewing it.
At 8:12 p.m., a brush fire in the 2400 block of Scaroni Road was reported, and Imperial County firefighters were called in to help. Rivera said a man was questioned at the site, and fire and police determined he was neither a suspect nor was the fire believed to be tied to the other cases.
A few minutes before 10 p.m., calls came in about the alley fire in the downtown.
“When we arrived on scene, which is Engine 11 arrived on scene, we did see two Dumpsters with their contents fully involved. The fire spread because of how close they were to the structure,” he said.
Again, while crews were still dealing with the mop-up on that fire, at 11:03 p.m., reports came in about a trash fire at 525 Imperial Ave., the long-closed Pizza Hut, where rubbish piled against the rear of the vacant building had been ignited, as if to catch the structure.
Fortunately, Rivera said, police were quick to that scene and put out the burning trash with fire extinguishers they were carrying in their units.
Throughout the night police and fire worked well together, he said. Fire crews did amazing work and police officers backed them up. Rivera said the officers were a big help that night.
“At this point, right now community involvement can be extremely helpful. People have heard this statement before, ‘if you see something, say something,’ call 911,” Rivera said on Sunday. “If something just doesn’t feel right, doesn’t look right, or something’s suspicious, go ahead and call 911. We’ll send an officer to go check and investigate.”