Authorities vow to catch arsonist in O.C. fire

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Authorities pledged Thursday to hunt down the person they say ignited the 25,000-acre Santiago fire that destroyed at least 14 Orange County homes, and offered a $150,000 reward for help leading to a conviction.

"The FBI will bring to bear all of its national resources . . . to make sure that we track, apprehend and put this person or persons behind bars where they belong," said FBI Special Agent Herb Brown.

The fire started on the west side of Santiago Canyon Road about 6 p.m. Sunday. Though officials previously said there were three points of origin, on Thursday they said there were actually two.

"The person or people who did this are exceptionally lucky, or they have some knowledge of when they can do the most damage when you set a fire," Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather said.

Fifteen minutes after the fire was reported, it had spread three miles, officials said. By Thursday evening, it had destroyed 14 homes and eight other buildings, and damaged 20 other homes and buildings. Four firefighters have been injured fighting the blaze, which is less than a third contained.

Officials pleaded for the public's help in finding the arsonist. Sheriff Michael S. Carona said officials had received 250 tips so far, though none had led to a suspect.

Arson is often on the minds of canyon residents, particularly when Santa Ana winds blow.

"It's inevitable that something like this is going to happen," said Ron Wortman, 51, who has lived in Silverado Canyon since 1981. "We have a committee to drive around when the winds come up to make sure some weirdo doesn't come into our canyon to start something."

A crew of volunteers was set to begin its shift Sunday when the fire broke out.

"By the time we were going to patrol Santiago Canyon, it was too late," said Gene Robinson of Silverado Canyon, the head of Canyon Watch.

Canyon residents are among the tipsters.

Mike Boeck, 56, who has lived in Silverado Canyon for 20 years, said he noticed three men behaving suspiciously near the mouth of Black Star Canyon, less than half a mile from the fire's ignition points, about 90 minutes before the blaze broke out Sunday. He and his wife took pictures, shot video and asked the men to leave.

"I was worried they were going to go up there on the rocks and smoke a reefer or a cigarette and set the whole canyon on fire," said Boeck, who turned over the videotape and photographs to law enforcement.

Two nearby toll roads that provide access to the back country where the fire was ignited record license plate numbers of some tollway drivers. Law enforcement agencies have requested information from the operator of the roads.

Chay Peterson, 46, who has lived in Wild Cat Canyon for decades, said the arsonist must be caught to prevent copycats.

"It upsets me that someone's sole joy in life is seeing things burn, that that's the way they feel power, seeing all the destruction on the news," she said.

The arsonist is lucky he wasn't caught in the act, some residents added.

"Around here if they caught a guy doing that, they'd shoot him right on sight," said Leonard Schwendeman, 89.

Boeck added, "If they ever catch this guy, they better hope that it's the sheriff or the FBI that catch 'em, because if canyon residents catch 'em first, there won't be a piece of them big enough for a dog to bite."

Times staff writer Janet Wilson contributed to this report.

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