As L.A. fire comes under control, lawmakers press for national arsonist registry

Two California lawmakers urge Congress to pass a bill that would track arsonists. More officers have been added to the arson probe into the Station wildfire.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Avianna Veneto, an employee of Lew Johnson, surveys the hot tub in which two men and a dog took refuge as flames from Station wildfire overran the area.
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Two weeks after the Los Angles County's largest-ever wildfire began – now 77 percent contained – fire officials are tight-lipped about the ongoing arson and homicide investigation. But Sheriff Dept. spokesman Steve Whitmore says his phone has been "ringing off the wall" with tips from anonymous sources and eyewitnesses. Because of all the information coming in, the investigation team has expanded from four investigators to 10.

The so-called Station fire destroyed 160,557 acres of woodland, including 82 residences and 14 commercial properties as of Sept. 11. Two firefighters were also killed. More than 3,000 fire personnel from several jurisdictions are still trying to contain the fire with seven miles of fire line – land denuded of vegetation to halt the fire's advance – still needed.

The fire is expected to be completely contained – meaning there is no active flames or uncontrolled fire line – by Sept. 15, according to Station fire spokesman Ian MacDonald.

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Meanwhile, Mr. Whitmore and other officials say they welcome legislation reintroduced in Congress this year by two California lawmakers to set up a national system for tracking convicted arsonists. California already has a similar database in place with over 3,000 offenders registered.

"Sheriff Baca is always looking for ways to prevent heinous crimes, especially arson," says Whitmore. "Without knowing details, this idea looks very promising."

The bill sponsors, House Reps. Mary Bono Mack (R) of Palm Springs and Andrew Schiff (D) of Pasadena, urged speedy passage through Congress Thursday.

The new law would mandate that convicted arsonists, many of whom are repeat offenders, report to authorities where they live, work, and attend school, much like registered sex offenders. A one-time arsonist would have to submit such information for five years while those with two offenses would have to be tracked for 10 years. Those with three or more offenses would have to submit their information for life.

"We as Californians understand the incalculable damage that can be caused by wildfire, which makes it all the more essential that we do everything possible to prevent unnecessary and senseless disaster at the hand of an arsonist," said Representative Mack in a press statement.

The bill was introduced in the last Congress after five firefighters lost their lives in 2006 battling the Esperanza fire in southern California, which was caused by arson. It cleared the House but never came to vote in the Senate.

The US House recently approved a resolution paying tribute to the two firefighters who lost their lives battling the L.A. fire.

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