Arson suspected in early morning fires

Chico Fire Department investigators said Tuesday that a string of six suspicious fires that broke out early Sunday morning appears to have been the work of the same firebug. One of the fires caused as much as $20,000 in damage to a portable office at the Chico Boys & Girls Club.

Department spokeswoman Marie Fickert said the close proximity and times of the fires make it very likely that they were all set by the same person or persons.

“Our firefighters were literally up all night,” Fickert said. “They’d put one out, then half an hour later there’d be another call.”

Most of the fires were set in Dumpsters in the hours between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. It appears to investigators that the alleged arsonist followed a route down Main Street and Park Avenue in the south part of town, hitting Dumpsters at five commercial buildings along the way.

Hardest hit was the Boys & Girls Club on East Seventh Street. Although the fire was reported to authorities later than the others, at 6:22 a.m., Fickert said it could possibly have been the first one lit, as there is some evidence it smoldered underneath the structure for some time.

The fire destroyed a portable trailer the club had been renting for office space.

When Maureen Pierce, executive director of the club, got the alarm at 6 o’clock Sunday morning, she figured it was another false alarm.

“The trailer was in flames,” she said. “It was shocking.”

She calculates the damage in melted phones and computers and other club equipment as between $10,000 and $20,000. The trailer is covered by insurance.

While donor information and other necessary records smell of smoke, “all the important stuff we can still read.” And Pierce has salvaged unused envelopes that are crispy at the edges.

The club members and staff were upset at first but are now upbeat about the situation. “Everyone’s hung in there and gotten through with humor,” she said. “We’ve got so many other wonderful things happening, it’s hard to feel too bad.”

The club has just begun construction on a new center. It was forced to spend $300 to hire a security guard Sunday night.

Dumpster fires were also started at Has Beans coffee shop, Golden Waffle diner, Children’s Campus Ministries thrift store, Moneysaver gas station and Auto Zone auto parts. Most of those businesses sustained little damage, but Pastor Barry Coccellato, director of Children’s Campus Ministries, said flames from a fire set in a Dumpster behind his shop destroyed lights and electrical outlets there, in addition to ruining some 2,000 pounds of clothes that had been awaiting shipment to orphanages in Mexico.

“It’s a big inconvenience,” Coccellato said. “We’re two weeks new into the building, so we’re still assessing [getting insurance]. We’re kind of eating this.”

Fickert said investigators are hoping a witness will come forward with information that could lead them to the suspect. While they are not ruling anyone out, there remains a distinct possibility that the offender is a juvenile. If so, Fickert said the Fire Department runs a counseling and referral service that can help youngsters deal with the problems that lead them to start fires.

“With the problem fire setters, they often require long-term intervention. We’ll follow some children for at least a year,” Fickert said.

Although there is no one reason why a young person would intentionally start a fire, it is common for juvenile arsonists to be frustrated with their home life or with events they feel are out of their control.

“Some of these kids say that setting a fire has a calming effect. It’s almost like looking at the flames in a fireplace,” Fickert said. “Plus, they may respond to the excitement of seeing the Fire Department in action. They’re often in the crowd watching [as the fire is put out].”

Fickert cautioned businesses to keep Dumpsters secure and away from their main buildings and asked anyone with information pertaining to Sunday’s fires to call 895-4912.