A suspected arson fire races through a vacant property in the 900 block of Rockwood Avenue around 5:20 a.m. Friday, Oct. 1. This a several other fires in the city are being eyed by police and fire officials as intentional, possibly set by one person. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CALEXICO POLICE OFFICERS ASSOCIATION
CALEXICO — Two suspicious fires set in a 24-hour period are among several that Calexico public safety personnel are investigating over more than a week as being linked and possibly the work of a serial arsonist.
The most recent attempts to ignite “intentional” fires in the city occurred late Friday night, Oct. 1, and early Saturday morning, Oct. 2, Calexico fire Capt. Eduardo “Lalo” Rivera said on Saturday afternoon, both troubling cases but ones that weren’t fully vetted by fire investigators until later in the day.
In both cases, the fires were extinguished by residents in the area, so only Calexico police officers responded, he said. However, Rivera and another fire service member did their own poking around, and in at least one case they found rubbish “placed under an electrical panel.”
That troubling instance, Rivera said, was near a residential area at 123 McKinley St. at 5:51 a.m. Saturday. In the second case (or first case, chronologically), they found evidence that an accelerant was thrown at a fence between houses at 927 Ollie Ave. at 9:50 p.m. Friday.
Rivera stopped short of even calling the cases “suspected arsons”; rather, he said they are suspicious.
From Sept. 14 and on, including an early-morning blaze, also on Friday, in the 900 block of Rockwood Avenue were all being investigated as “suspected arsons,” Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo said midday Oct. 1.
“We’re doing our work to try to find out who is doing this. Yesterday, last night (Thursday, Sept. 30), we were hitting the areas of where (the first fires) were,” Gerardo said midday Friday.
“We don’t know for sure if it’s the same person. We think so (since) they jumped over to the other side of the city because, ironically, we were saturating areas on the other side when the (Rockwood) fire starts,” Gerardo explained in a brief phone conversation.
After a suspected arson fire on Sept. 14 near Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Lincoln Street, and another on Monday, Sept. 27, on George Avenue, also near Cesar Chavez, the chief said patrols were concentrating on the west side of town. Rockwood Avenue is east of Imperial Avenue.
Gerardo didn’t even mention a fire in the same area in the 300 block of Roosevelt Street on Tuesday night, Oct. 28, that Rivera also would not immediately refer to as a suspected arson.
“Let’s just say, we’re eliminating the possibility that it’s arson,” Rivera said.
Calexico fire officials initially weren’t available to speak in detail when contacted on Friday, but later that night, the department posted to its Facebook page several photos and a lengthy message. It was the second such post this week.
The Friday night message — before they became aware of the Ollie Avenue attempt — was a bit more forthright in what fire personnel are dealing with, although still guarded.
“We suspect someone is purposely starting these fires,” the post reads in part, also referencing a fire at a trailer park in the 200 block of Lincoln Street on Oct. 30. Gerardo said Friday that the trailer fire was suspected of being electrical in origin and caused by faulty wiring.
Calexico fire crews have responded to three structure fires and two “nuisance fires in three consecutive shifts,” the department’s Oct. 1 post reads. “One of the locations of one of the structure fires was the second time it burns in a month. We have had numerous other small brush and trash fires in the last month as well.”
The first post of the week came on Wednesday, Sept. 29, referencing the Roosevelt fire.
“Calexico Fire crews battled a second-alarm structure fire along with El Centro fire, Holtville fire, and Imperial County fire at an abandoned structure with direct exposure to other houses. This is the second fire at this location in the last month,” according to uncredited post. “This structure fire is fire two of three in a 24-hour period. The house was vacant due to renovations because of the previous fire. The repairs were nearly complete. No injuries reported and the fire was contained to that structure only.
“Fire crews have been noticing an increase in fires in that area,” it concludes before sending a callout for information on suspicious activity.
Rivera on Saturday declined to elaborate further, pending a release of additional information in the coming week, something Chief Gerardo also promised.
Since early 2020, police and fire officials have lamented at different times the inordinate number of fires that have plagued vacant buildings, houses, trash bins, and empty lots in Calexico, many of which have occurred in bunches.
At various times, police and fire have referred to these as intentionally set arsons, or “accidental” from warming or cooking fire; regardless, most have been attached to the homeless population in Calexico.
SUSPICIOUS FIRES/SUSPECTED ARSONS
Calexico police reported a total of 112 suspected arson fires between 2019 and 2020, according to the most recent FBI crime statistics released on Monday, Sept. 27 — exactly 56 reported for each 12-month period.
Although the number of arsons in Calexico did not rise from year to year like the other reporting agencies in Imperial County, the amount of them is far and away greater than anywhere else in the Valley. After Calexico, the Sheriff’s Office reported 35 in 2020, up from 22 a year earlier. Brawley Police Department saw its numbers increase from 15 in 2019 to 28. El Centro went from seven to eight in one year.
“Most of the homes and places that were set on fire were abandoned buildings and 90 percent of those buildings were occupied by homeless people,” Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo said on Tuesday, Sept. 28. “Our suspicions are when the homeless were kicked out by the property owners, they went back and set it on fire.”
Gerardo maintained on Friday that this might be what is happening in this latest spate of fires. Raw data for 2021 was unavailable.
Also, there seemed to be a different sort of urgency conveyed by Gerardo and others around these fires. The social media seem be an indicator.
Fire Capt. Damian Gonzalez said the suspected arson on Oct. 1 was reported at 5:19 a.m. at 935 Rockwood Ave., but he had few other details because of the shift change from morning crew.
The department’s Facebook post later that evening provided a few more details on the blaze, which occurred “just across the street from Rockwood Elementary.”
“The structure was a fully involved vacant house with heavy flames impinging on the adjacent house. Low hanging live wires were a hazard to look out for until the power could be turned off. No injuries were reported,” according to Calexico fire.
The Facebook post on the fire at 312 Roosevelt St., which is just two blocks east of George Avenue, also included a map by department personnel showing the area of concentration of the previous blazes.
Although there were few details or specifics on some of the other fires the posts referenced, police call logs revealed more about the suspected arsons of Sept. 14 and 27.
The fire at 939 George Ave. was reported to Calexico’s dispatch center at 2:13 a.m. Sept. 27 in an older residential neighborhood just several hundred feet east from the railroad tracks that run parallel to Cesar Chavez Boulevard.
Confined to a 25-foot area in the rear of the house, there were “no witnesses or evidence at the scene,” according to narrative from police Officer Cynthia Fraker.
“Upon my arrival, I noticed a section of a wooden fence was burning,” she wrote, adding fire crews extinguished the six-foot fence shortly after.
Fraker states she checked a nearby dirt lot for witnesses and spoke to a resident living next to the property.
The neighbor “heard some banging and popping noises from the dirt lot behind the houses. He went out his back door and saw the neighbor’s wooden fence burning … I spoke to the Fire Captain on scene who stated that the fire was intentional (sic) set.”
Damages to the property were estimated at $3,000 and Fraker took photos with her body-worn camera as evidence. It was not immediately clear whether the house was vacant, although an owner was listed in the call logs.
On a Tuesday at 7:46 p.m., Sept. 14, police and fire crews responded to Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Lincoln Street to reports of an arson fire at an address listed at 305 Lincoln St.
“I was dispatched to a report of a large brush fire in the area … Upon arrival, I saw a fire along the west fence line of 305 Lincoln St., which is a commercial business. The fire had engulfed a shanty surrounded by trash that was situated along the fence,” writes the officer only identified as the “night shift supervisor.”
“Preliminary investigation revealed the fire was caused by arson as there have been a rash of arsons in the area where fires have been set in alleys along fence lines to primarily include discarded trash items and, on one occasion, a recreational vehicle,” the officer’s narrative continues.
There was no property loss value attached to the fire, the officer concluded, because it was mostly rubbish.
Capt. Rivera was being cautious with his words this early into the investigation.
“I think that right now, any fires that are in the area that we’ve recently responded to, we’re looking very closely at them. And through the investigation, we are going to eliminate the cause,” he said. “Anytime that we can eliminate the cause as arson, that would be a goal. … We’re trying to eliminate of confirm these recent fires as arsons.”
Those with information about any of the fires or if they have witnessed suspicious activity are being asked to call Calexico police at 760-768-2140.