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Investigators look for arson in wildfire outbreak

By Julie Watson and Elliot Spagat

SAN DIEGO (AP) - A 57-year-old man was charged with arson Friday in one of at least 10 wildfires that erupted in Southern California this week, and investigators were working to determine whether other blazes in the unusually early and intense outbreak were ignited by something as ordinary as sparks from cars or something more sinister.

State fire officials said the first blaze that erupted between Tuesday and Thursday was caused by a spark from malfunctioning construction equipment. But it could take months to get to the bottom of the most damaging fires.

Alberto Serrato pleaded not guilty to arson in connection with one of the smaller fires - a 105-acre fire in suburban Oceanside that started Wednesday and is fully contained. Bail was set at $250,000.

Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County district attorney's office, said witnesses saw Serrato adding dead brush onto smoldering bushes, which flamed up. He has not been connected to any other fire, Sierra said.

Oceanside police Lt. Sean Marshand said Serrato is believed to have added fuel to the fire but not to have started it.

"Unfortunately we don't have the guy that we really want," he said.

Serrato was booked into jail Wednesday, according to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department website, but his arrest wasn't announced until Friday. Sierra didn't know if he had an attorney.

All together, the wildfires have raced through an estimated 20,000 acres about 30 miles north of San Diego, causing more than $20 million in damage. One burned body was found in an encampment of homeless people. At least eight houses and an 18-unit condominium complex were destroyed, and tens of thousands of people were warned to leave their homes.

Eight of the blazes popped up between late morning and sundown on Wednesday, raising suspicions that some had been set.

The region has become a tinder box in recent days because of conditions not normally seen until late summer - extremely dry weather, 50 mph Santa Ana winds and temperatures in the 90s. On Friday, though, cooler weather aided the 2,600 firefighters, and thousands of people began returning home.

In one of the hardest-hit cities, Carlsbad, investigators finished examining the burn site across the street from a park and focused on interviewing people who called a hotline that was set up to report any suspicious activity.

"Do people have suspicions? Yes," said police Capt. Neil Gallucci, noting there has been no lightning that could explain the blazes. "But can we confirm them? The answer is no."

Police in the city of Escondido arrested two people, ages 17 and 19, for investigation of arson in connection with two small fires that were extinguished within minutes. But they found no evidence linking the suspects to the 10 bigger wildfires.

The list of possible causes is long.

"Our investigation might be over quickly for some of these fires - say, if we find a piece of metal nearby from a catalytic converter that backfired," the sheriff said. "But others might not be so easy to determine. We'll be talking to people in the areas to see if they saw anything to see if arson might have had a role."

Investigators will visit each burn site and go down a list, marking what they know and don't know.

Is it near a road? That raises the possibility that the flames were ignited by a hot tailpipe, sparks from a catalytic converter or a discarded cigarette from a motorist. Is there a railroad nearby? Are there any power lines?

Investigators will also study the ground for footprints or tire tracks and analyze the burn pattern.

Two of the blazes broke out at military bases, where training exercises with gunfire have been known to spark flames.

A 2003 wildfire in Southern California that killed 15 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and blackened 300,000 acres in October and November was caused by a lost hunter who set a signal fire. Sparks from power lines were blamed for wildfires in the San Diego area in 2007 that left five people dead and burned down about 1,500 homes.

This time, the hardest-hit areas were in the cities of San Marcos, where a college campus shut down and canceled graduation ceremonies, and Carlsbad, where the Legoland amusement park was forced to close.

A dozen wildfires popping up in a single day is not unheard of in the drought-stricken state, but it's a phenomenon usually seen during the dog days of summer.

"What makes the San Diego area fires so unique is that we had tinder-dry conditions and Santa Ana winds in the month of May, and that's unprecedented," state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Join the discussion

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Rachel May 17 2014 at 12:31 PM

I wouldn't be surprised if a firefighter started the fire. It's more common than you think, you just don't hear about it. There are a few pyromaniac firefighters out there. Also, it just means more overtime pay for most..investigation should also include firefighters...just saying...

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8 replies
hokanut May 17 2014 at 2:34 PM

So a guy who has a propensity for burning things just happened on a fire set by someone else and decided to take advantage of his "luck"? Fire bugs need to be publicly executed.

Flag Reply +10 rate up
Cap'n Mikey May 17 2014 at 2:38 PM

This is what happens when you have 20 million illegals in your country, La Raza, the Communist Party USA, Envirowhackos, marxist professors, welfare for all. So sad! San Diego is a beautiful city, but I would not live there, too many Mexicans.

Flag Reply +8 rate up
3 replies
pacificoaster May 16 2014 at 8:11 PM

The cities of San Diego county will always be vunerable to wild-fires because of the topography of the land, the area is full of canyons, mesa's and natural landscapes that offer the right combination for fire material and most of the homes surround these natural land features and though it makes it a beautiful place to live it is a risk, just like tornado, hurricane and volcanic regions.

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1 reply
Maria Martinez pacificoaster May 17 2014 at 7:54 AM

At last, a comment with knowledge and good sense! THANKS! I get so tired of reading tasteless cracks from people trying to make disasters into jokes or impose their blockheaded political notions.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
msmelo75 May 17 2014 at 1:09 PM

I am saddened by the destruction that these fires bring to humans, animals, and flora.

Flag Reply +7 rate up
bob_martinez5 May 17 2014 at 1:15 PM

Why aren't they showing a picture of this jerk? Why are they protecting his identity???

Flag Reply +6 rate up
3 replies
ndtohvfun May 17 2014 at 12:08 PM

i see all the California haters too bad you live in tornado, blizzard, flood state..i'll take my few earthquakes and if we put out the death penalty for those who start blazes intentionally it would be a beautiful state

Flag Reply +6 rate up
xonixaprxo May 17 2014 at 1:56 PM

OK I HAVE HAD IT,WHY ARE PEOPLE ALWAYS BADMOUTHING MEXICAN'S?IF YOUR WIFE HAS AN AFFAIR,IT WAS WITH A MEXICAN,IF YOU GET KICKED OUT OF YOUR JOB,THEY GAVE IT TO A MEXICAN,IF YOU GET CHIT ON YOUR SHOES A MEXICAN TOOK A CHIT THERE,WHY DONT YOU BLAME OTHER RACES FOR THINGS THAT GO WRONG IN THIS COUTRY.DO YOU THINK MEXICANS ARE HERE JUST TO GET IN TROUBLE???THEY KNOW IF THEY GET IN TROUBLE THEY WOULD BE HUNG FROM THE HIGHEST TREE AROUND,THERE NOT STUPID,THEY JUST WANT TO WORK,FEED THEIR FAMILIES AND HAVE A BETTER LIFE,DONT SAY THEY ARE HERE FOR WELLFARE AND FREEBIES BECAUSE THEY CANT GET ANY OF THAT,THEY ARE HARD WORKERS,SO TALK WHAT YOU KNOW...

Flag Reply +6 rate up
8 replies
ndtohvfun May 17 2014 at 12:05 PM

i think there should be a mandatory death penalty for ANYONE who purposely sets a fire during emergency conditions

Flag Reply +5 rate up
pat May 17 2014 at 7:51 AM

Keep having more Mexicans CA..............

Flag Reply +5 rate up
1 reply
leila pat May 17 2014 at 10:15 AM

Long ago used to be only them!

Flag Reply 0 rate up
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