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Los Angeles authorities on alert for more arson fires
LOS ANGELES — Police and firefighters patrolled neighborhoods Saturday night, took hotline phone calls and scrambled to identify who was behind the arson fires that have spooked the Hollywood area for two straight nights, making a typically busy New Year's Eve in Los Angeles even busier.
An early evening blaze suggested it could be a long night. Firefighters quickly put out a car fire at about 6 p.m. in Hollywood that “fits the profile of concern” authorities have been following for the arsons, fire department spokesman Brian Humphrey said.
A crew of 10 put out the fire in minutes. The flames did not spread beyond the car and no one was injured. Humphrey could not immediately say how the fire started.
The fire closely resembled more than a dozen set before dawn Saturday, mostly in North Hollywood, and nearly two dozen fires set in and around Hollywood a day earlier.
Though some of the fires spread and damaged homes and apartments, none have brought injuries.
Still, some residents were on edge as authorities ramped up efforts to catch the culprit or culprits on a night when police and fire resources are always stretched thin as drunken New Year’s revelers hit the town.
“We’re pulling out all the stops,” Humphrey said. “We’re hoping that the person or people responsible will be brought to swift and complete justice.”
Firefighters were to be stationed around the city to respond to emergencies, while authorities set up a hotline and pored through tips. Authorities also were interviewing witnesses, looking at video footage for clues and have announced at least $35,000 in rewards for information leading to a conviction.
Among the most pressing questions: Were the fires set by a serial arsonist, multiple people or copycats? And why target cars, apparently at random?
“It’s really unnerving,” said Gary Joseph, one of several neighbors who stood looking at the frames of four badly charred vehicles in a carport in North Hollywood. Joseph said there was no way to stow his own car and keep it safe.
“It’s partly exposed, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.
Sheila Kirk, who lives in the building next to the Hollywood freeway where the four cars were torched, said she quickly realized when she was awakened before dawn that the arson spree had spread to her neighborhood, though it’s several miles northeast of where the fires were set the previous night.
“We’d heard all about the fires in Hollywood and West Hollywood, then we heard what sounded like a giant hose and ran downstairs and found everything burning,” said Kirk, whose own car had a partly melted bumper despite being some 30 feet away from the cars that were set on fire. “It looks like they chose the spot where the cars were bunched together so they could do the most damage. Thank God no one got hurt.”
Neighbors and gawkers gathered to take cell phone pictures of the wreckage, and the smell of burnt plastic still hung in the air hours after the fire.
Kirk said she felt no safer because her building had already been struck.
“You don’t know, you just don’t know,” she said. “When you’re dealing with crazy people, who knows what they’re going to do?”
Elyse Eisenberg, a film producer who lives in West Hollywood about a mile from a fire that was set Friday morning, said that since then she has noticed fire trucks ramping up their presence on city streets.
“I’ve seen the fire trucks stationed around town on ready alert. And that’s comforting … They’re positioned in neighborhoods ready to go like in Laurel Canyon where the Jim Morrison fire was,” Eisenberg said, referring to the house of the famous late Doors singer, which was among those damaged Friday.
Eisenberg says residents have been sending emails around reminding people to be on alert. She lives in a condominium building with a secure parking garage, meaning any would-be arsonist would have to get through a locked security gate, but there are open lots packed with cars nearby.
“I’m sure I’ll be home by then. I don’t mean to be dismissive but the fires do seem to start well after midnight,” Eisenberg said.
She also revelers expected in West Hollywood will decrease the chance of an arsonist striking.
“We have an excellent police force. I’m sure they would be alert to keeping an eye out on partygoers as well as any suspicious activity,” Eisenberg said.
While few clues have emerged publicly, officials have speculated that it’s plausible that one person in a car, on a motorcycle or on a bike could have set all the fires, considering the limited area the blazes broke out in, but know they could be looking for multiple suspects.
Police said they were looking for a man who was driving a mid-1990s Lexus sedan, but offered no further description or details.
Fire officials also have yet to set a damage figure for the blazes. In West Hollywood alone, they said flames destroyed about $350,000 worth of property.
AP reporter Terry Tang contributed from Phoenix.
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