Town Hall meeting addresses arson concerns

L-R: Fire Chief Kevin O
L-R: Fire Chief Kevin O'Brien and Fire Marshal Paul Turner
— image credit: Cali Bagby/Staff Photo

The crowd looked frustrated, concerned and maybe a bit afraid.

A recent series of fires labeled suspicious in nature have left island residents wondering: is there an arsonist in our midst? At a town meeting on Monday around 200 people voiced their concerns to local officials.

Maybe I've watched too many movies, but isn't it possible that the person who did this is here?” said one woman. “I suggest we all make contact with the person sitting next to us and introduce ourselves.”

The Town Hall meeting held on July 22 at the Eastsound fire hall gave Fire Chief Kevin O'Brien, Fire Marshal Paul Turner and Undersheriff Bruce Distler a chance to answer community members' questions, which ranged from topics of burglary to arson.

The incidents raising concern are the Orcas Artworks and an Olga residential structure that were both set ablaze in the early morning hours of July 19, as well as another early morning house fire with explosions in Olga’s Willis Lane neighborhood in June that has been classified as arson. O’Brien told the Sounder last week he can’t say if the three fires are related.

The Artworks offers art and crafts from more than 40 local artisans. It was established in 1981 and the co-op is owned and operated by the artists. They share the historic building, a renovated strawberry packing plant, with the James Hardman Gallery and the Cafe Olga, owned by Bobby Olmsted and Bev Simko. It is expected that the building will take months to repair.

The incidents are under investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Sheriff’s Office, the San Juan County Fire Marshal’s Office and all three island fire departments. Hydrocarbon detection dogs have been deployed at the scene of the fires and could help investigators conclude what type of substance was used to incite the flames.

I want answers, we all want answers,” said O'Brien at the meeting. “Believe me, I'm very frustrated. I feel your frustration.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2010, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 27,100 home structure fires that were intentionally set. These fires caused 310 deaths, 860 injuries and $551 million in direct property damage.

According to interFire, an online resource for arson investigation, whether the buildings are abandoned or vacant, more than 70 percent of fire in the U.S. are incendiary or suspicious. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, vandalism oriented fires are most common at abandoned or vacant homes.

At the recent meeting, one woman asked if officials had compiled a profile for a possible arsonist.

I could be looking at you right now,” said Turner.

He added that the department is still waiting for a full profile of an arsonist from ATF.

Pamela Kulbars, who has been a psychiatric nurse for more than 25 years and has worked with San Diego's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team and at the Pima County Detention Center in Tucson, was quoted in Fire Chief magazine as saying that there are several personality profiles for arsonists.

The antisocial personality disorder is one ... The other type of personality disorder is the histrionic personality. These people are more like your firefighters, your heroes. They want to be in the spotlight,” she said. “While firefighter arson is rare, one warning sign is that, right before setting a fire, most arsonists will really increase their intake of either drugs or alcohol.”

According to the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, the most common motive (41 percent) for a serial arsonist is revenge.

Another concern raised at the meeting was a rumor going around about a string of burglaries in the same area of the fires.

Distler said there have been burglaries in several areas on the island, but they have occurred in a larger number in Olga. He added that those cases are under investigation.

When asked if he was going to have staffing in the Olga area from 2 to 3 a.m., which is around the time the fires are believed to have started, Distler responded, “we do not announce shift schedules, but we do have people in early morning shifts.”

He added that anyone who wants to help can call the Friday Harbor Sheriff's Office at 378-4151 and leave a voicemail for him. O'Brien said if anyone has any photos of people at any of the fires or if anyone has noticed something suspicious at the site to contact the fire department. He also suggested that people organize neighborhood watches and look for anything out of the ordinary. If community members see any suspicious behavior in regards to arson in the coming weeks, they are asked to call 911.

If you see a gas can on the side of the road let us know,” O'Brien said.

Anyone who has information about the fires is asked to call Turner at 376-2331. The Alarm Foundation and the Northwest Insurance Council have offered up to $10,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of any individual or individuals involved in these incidents. There is also a private $5,000 cash reward offered as well under the same conditions.

Tax deductible donations to help victims of the fire can be sent to the Olga Strawberry Council at P.O. Box 214, Olga, WA 98279. Note either: “Artists” or “Cafe.”

This is a big jigsaw puzzle,” said Turner at the meeting. “You start with the corner piece and that is where we start today.”










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