Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

With all the wildland fires currently burning in the western states, it may be easy to forget that in the past six months, Del Norte County has also had more than its share of suspicious fires.

A Triplicate estimate puts the number of suspicious fires at about 13 since April, reaching from Gasquet to Smith River to Crescent City. There is reason to believe at least some of them are arson and investigators are now revealing they have video of a person setting a fire.

Video proof

In Crescent City at about 3:30 a.m., Aug. 23, firefighters responded to a report of a house on fire at 575 Childs Ave. Firefighters were able to snuff the blaze before it destroyed the structure, leaving the framework mostly intact.

At the time, the cause of the fire was undetermined but some new evidence has been located.

Crescent City Fire Chief Steve Wakefield confirmed a video has surfaced, which showed a person with a flashlight approaching the house. The video shows a burst of light and the fire starting, Wakefield said.

“We’re sure it was an arsonist,” he said, “and it may be connected to some of the other fires we’ve had around here.”

The video footage is currently is in the possession of sheriff’s investigators.

“We’ve had a lot more (fires) than usual for this time of year,” said Wakefield. “We usually get a few brush and trash fires but these have mostly been unoccupied, derelict structures...”

With most of the fires, a cause has yet to be determined or disclosed, while others remain under investigation.

Five months of fires

On the night of April 3, Gasquet Volunteer Fire Department responded to a structure fire off Little Jones Creek. Fire Chief Nick Karanopoulos said the two-story, off-grid home had been unoccupied since the previous summer. At last report, the cause was being investigated by CAL FIRE.

Wednesday, Karanopoulos said no cause had been determined or reported.

That same day — April 3 — a double-wide mobile home in the 4000 block of Lake Earl Drive in Fort Dick was destroyed by fire, displacing three residents. Firefighters were able to put it out in about an hour. The cause remained under investigation at last report.

On May 6, much of downtown Smith River burned as firefighters from many area departments rushed to assist. Smith River Fire Chief Jeramy Phillips said the fire started in the former Hollies Market and spread to destroy Alta’s Burger Bar and the building known to locals as the pink hotel. Del Norte County Sheriff’s Department took over the investigation.

On June 8 an RV in the Nomad Trailer Park in Smith River burned, injuring the one occupant. The Triplicate has been in contact with the occupant of the RV, who believes the fire was set intentionally because she reported the identities of two alleged Smith River fire arsonists to authorities. The occupant has had to travel to the Bay Area for several burn treatments and skin grafts as a result of the fire.

Sheriff’s Cmdr. Bill Steven said in June that a couple suspects had been identified but more information was being sought from other possible witnesses.

On June 24, Gasquet firefighters responded to a grass fire in the middle of town at Hummingbird Lane and Todd Road in broad daylight. The cause of the fire was not determined and at last report, was under investigation by the U.S. Forest Service.

On the night of June 26, area fire departments converged on a 28-acre fire burning on the peninsula near the mouth of the Smith River. As the fire was some distance from roads or hydrants, fire crews had to pack equipment into the area and fight the fire by hand. At last report, CAL FIRE personnel were investigating.

On June 28, an early morning fire destroyed an unoccupied house in the 3300 block of Lake Earl Drive. Steven called the fire suspicious at the time, noting that it was a common refuge for transients. One month before, a barn on the same property was destroyed by fire.

On July 2, a fire in an RV in the 1700 block of Riverside Drive in Crescent City spread to vegetation. Wakefield said it was one of several suspicious fires which had occurred in that area since about April.

On July 3, a dilapidated motor home parked on private property next to Crescent City Cinemas caught fire, but was quickly snuffed by responding fire personnel. the motor home had been the subject of local controversy, as a pile of trash grew around it, as well as inside it.

Wakefield said at the time that it appeared someone attempted to light the rear of the motor home on fire. It was later towed away and the area around it was cleaned up.

On July 18, the screen of the former Red’s Drive-In Theater on Elk Valley Cross Road burned in an early morning fire that was believed to have started on a mattress found below the zscreen. Wakefield said at the time that it could not be determined if it was intentionally set or spread from a warming fire.

During the night on Aug. 10, firefighters were called to an abandoned house in the 13000 block of U.S. 101 to find it fully engulfed in flames. Smith River Fire Capt. Ron Simpson said the cause was under investigation at the time.

More recently …

Several residents expressed shock and sadness, following the news the Shaker Church in Smith River burned to the ground Aug. 30. Since no one was in the building at the time of the fire, Phillips said it was suspicious, listing the cause as “unknown” on the official report.

Sheriff Erik Apperson said while the Shaker Church fire has not been confirmed as arson, it is being investigated as suspicious.

The next day, Aug. 31, Fort Dick Fire Department and CAL FIRE responded to a burning stump and small wildland fire off U.S. 101 and Wonder Stump Road. The fire was extinguished before it could spread, and appeared to originate inside a hollowed redwood stump there.

Apperson said meetings are taking place between law enforcement and fire officials to look at data from suspicious fires.

“I met with Steve Wakefield and we have noted that there seems to be a pattern,” Apperson said, “but it’s important for people to understand that not all of these are arson. We do have some leads and we’re working with the fire departments.”

Anyone with information about any of these fires should contact their local fire department, CALFIRE at 707-464-5526, or the sheriff’s office at 707-464-4191.

Ruled out

On June 20, Johnston’s Cabinet Shop on Lake Earl Drive and Standard Veneer Road burned. For the record, arson was ruled out as a cause.

Owner Mike Johnston said Wednesday insurance investigators determined the cause of the fire to have been electrical. The remains of the building are being cleared out to make room for the new one.

Johnston said plans for the new building are almost done and construction should begin soon.

Reach Tony Reed at treed@triplicate.com

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