Feds chasing fast-moving Hollywood arsonists

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has joined California fire investigators searching for arsonists torching cars at the height of arson season: New Year's. More cars burned Saturday morning.

Dan Steinberg/AP
A Los Angeles Fire Department firefighter waits for water to extinguish multiple cars on fire in a carport in the Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011. For the third night in a row, a rash of arson fires has sent firefighters scrambling to extinguish car fires in various neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

New Year's is high time for serial arsonists, research shows, and Hollywood firefighters are seeing that phenomenon first hand as they chase potential copy-catters who continued to set cars ablaze Saturday morning.

Since Thursday, suspected arsonists have set at least 30 car fires in a compact area of densely-developed Hollywood and West Hollywood, including around the famed Laurel Canyon area, where a car parked in front of a home once occupied by the late Doors' frontman Jim Morrison burned Friday morning, setting part of the home aflame.

Police say they have two people in custody, but the fire-setting continued Saturday morning.

Fire officials said the fires could be the work of a serial arsonist or a copycat culprit traveling between scenes on a motorcycle or even a bicycle. Saturday's fires came even as the fire department urged locals to keep their eyes open and stay vigilant.

So far, investigators have scant evidence to go on, as the perpetrators have for the most part appeared to have avoided video surveillance cameras. A $35,000 reward has been posted to entice residents with information about the fires to come forward.

While no one has been hurt, several homes and carports have sustained serious damage, raising the alarm at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which has sent agents to Hollywood.

Arson studies show that the majority of arson fires are set by thrill-seeking youths, even as the number of arson cases in larger US cities declined by 13 percent from 2010 through the first half of 2011, according to the newest FBI crime statistics. The numbers of arson fires historically goes up as a new year beckons, according to the US Fire Administration.

Given its long history of destructive wildfires, California is well-positioned to track arsonists. It has spearheaded the implementation of a national arson registry, similar to the sex offender registry, to track people convicted on arson charges after they're released.

Amid news that the car-burning rampage continued Saturday morning, Angelenos fervently debated what kind of perpetrators could be setting the fires. Some have speculated it's the work of homeless street people, while others have suggested eco-terrorism.

“I'm not even sure how it would be possible for a single individual to cover the area with a car – it has to be two or more people working together,” suggested Los Angeles Times reader Adrianna Belle on the newspaper's website. “These fires also seem too low-rent for the environmental terrorists, who, like most terrorists, want the most bang for their buck. If they ever blow [stuff] up, it's usually something big, like an entire dealer's lot filled with cars. Really, though, it's most likely one deranged individual with a jones for setting fires. Even if they wanted help to stop a compulsion, where would they go?”

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