Arson Suspected in String of Southside Fires

LATEST FIRES: Brush Fire Near Memorial Stadium, Trashcan in Front of Sam's Market, More Trash Cans and Scooter Ignited Monday Night

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The Berkeley Police Department, UCPD and Berkeley Fire Department are investigating a string of at least 11 different arson fires set since Friday in and around the UC Berkeley campus, including one adjacent to a student residence hall that witnesses say sent flames at least one story high.

The fires have damaged three automobiles, melted the steering compartment of a motor scooter, destroyed one Port-a-Potty, burnt several trash cans and a wooden bench. During a fire late Monday night on the 2300 block of Bowditch Street, residents of nearby house pulled a propane tank from the flames.

The 11th fire - a lit trash can in front of Sam's Market on Telegraph Avenue at around 3:50 a.m. Tuesday morning - was captured by the store's surveillance video. The video, shown on KTVU news, shows an unknown person approach a trash can in front of the market five minutes before the fire followed moments later by two more unknown individuals. The trash can ignites minutes later.

According to Berkeley police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, two property crime detectives are investigating the fires and are considering the individuals from the video as suspects. They also plan on contacting registered arsonists with histories of using trash cans to start larger fires. She said that police are also asking the communities help in apprehending those responsible for the fires, adding that arsonists tend to stay at the scene of fires they start.

"Part of the crime is the thrill of watching the flames and the smoke, the destruction and the emergency personal respond," she said. "They get a thrill from watching their work."

Trash Fires Begin Friday, Continue into Saturday

The string of incidents began Friday when UCPD received a report of multiple trash cans on fire along Telegraph Avenue, including trash cans in front of Subway and others toward Channing Way at around 1:30 a.m., according to Sabina Imrie, assistant fire chief for special operations at the department. UCPD assisted Berkeley firefighters and police with a larger trash can fire at the intersection of Bancroft Way and Telegraph at 11:30 p.m Friday as well.

Then Saturday at around 3:28 a.m., Berkeley police received a report of another trash can on fire next to a parked 1995 Toyota Camry on the 2600 block of Parker Street. According to Kusmiss, the fire damaged a nearby light pole, broke the car's rear windshield and caused the right rear tire of the car to explode.

At 5:14 a.m., UCPD responded to another trash can fire at the Kleeberger Parking Lot next to Memorial Stadium, according to UCPD Lt. Alex Yao. Alameda County Fire Department extinguished the fire.

Port-a-Potty, Car, UC Van Damaged in Three Fires Sunday

At around 3:21 a.m. Sunday, a Berkeley police officer was patrolling Southside when he saw a Port-a-Potty on fire in front of a building at 2398 Bancroft Way, according to Kusmiss. The officer extinguished the fire with a nearby hose, though the fire melted the entire toilet and charred the exterior stucco wall of the building.

A little over an hour later at 4:56 a.m., Kusmiss said Berkeley police and firefighters responded to another lit trash can that had been pushed up against a gray 2005 Nissan in front of a building at 2347 Prospect St. The car sustained major fire damage to its passenger side, roof, hood, front bumper, headlight and interior.

Later, Berkeley firefighters responded to a call to Ehrman Hall around 11:42 p.m. and quickly extinguished a pile of flaming wood debris located between a dumpster, a parked van and a retaining wall on the west side of the building near Dwight Way, according to Acting Battalion Chief Bill Kehoe. After the flame set off the dormitory's fire alarm, residents of Ehrman filed out of the building, which experienced a fire in its trash chute that sent two students to the hospital late last month. Shortly after midnight, the residents were allowed back in the building.

Berkeley resident Chuck Pryors was driving east on Dwight when he saw flames a story high emanating from behind the dumpster, located in the dorm's driveway. Pryors stopped his car and saw a Berkeley police officer running toward the flames with a fire extinguisher, though Pryor said the officer stopped before reaching the flames.

"He kind of quickly realized he wasn't equipped to deal with the situation," Pryors said while standing across the street from the fire's location.

Plumes of smoke from the fire rose above the residence hall and were visible from across the housing complex where Sebastian Fritz, an international student and volunteer firefighter from Austria is staying for the summer. The economics student from the Vienna University of Economics and Business said he saw the smoke from the seventh floor of Davidson Hall and ran down to help put out the flames, though he said firefighters were already on scene when he arrived.

Fritz described it as a "small little fire, not a spectacular one."

Scooter Damaged, Propane Tanks Failed to Ignite in Three Monday Fires

According to Lt. Yao, about 20 minutes after the dorm fire, UCPD and Berkeley police officers responded to reports of another fire at the Tang Center courtyard and found a wooden bench on fire, which they extinguished. Yao said all three fires on UC Berkeley property would be investigated by the Office of the State Fire Marshall.

Later that evening at around 7:30 p.m, Berkeley firefighters responded to calls of a burning trashcan in an alley between two apartment buildings at 2713 Dwight Way between Etna Street and Piedmont Avenue. Area residents reported hearing a loud popping noise from within the trash can, according to Acting Lt. Kevin White. He added police officers would be searching the area throughout the night.

A few hours later, at around 11:45 p.m. residents of a house at 2316 Bowditch St. said they saw flames rising from the north corner of a parking lot behind their home and ran outside to find two trash cans on fire near a scooter and two propane tanks.

Jimmy Henson, a resident of the home and owner of the scooter, said he and his housemates put out the burning trash cans, which he said had been moved from the opposite side of the parking lot and placed near the scooter and the propane tanks. After putting out the fire, Henson, a UC Berkeley student, said they removed the first propane tank. When the fire reignited, they called Berkeley police, who arrived an fully extinguished the flames.

"Thank god (the propane tanks) didn't explode," Henson said, surveying the damage Monday night. "That whole house could have gone up."

Berkeley fire fighters responded to the latest fire Tuesday night at an apartment building behind Memorial Building. At around 9:00 p.m. residents on the second floor the building at 2 Panoramic Way smelled smoke from a small brush fire below their balcony, Acting Battalion Chief Bill Kehoe said Tuesday night. He said that the residents rushed to the grassy hillside and put out most of the fire with water filled pots before fire fighters arrived on the scene. Kehoe said there was no "definitive link" to the other fires though a burnt can found at the fire was being examined for flammable liquids. Kusmiss said investigators have ruled out the latest fire.

Emma Anderson of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.


Javier Panzar is the news editor. Contact him at [email protected]

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