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Fear Follows Fires in Newport : Arsonist Sought in Mystery Blazes

Times Staff Writer

In a quiet Newport Beach neighborhood, two fire-blackened homes stand out as grim evidence of an arsonist.

The two homes in the 1800 block of Port Westbourne Place burned March 26. Several other minor fires have occurred in the same block in the last 2 weeks, all deliberately started by a nighttime arsonist, police said. No one has been hurt, but three cars and the two homes have been extensively damaged.

The result has been fear and suspicion in the neighborhood, which is northeast of Fashion Island and south of the UC Irvine campus.

Arsonist May Be a Neighbor

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“It’s scary,” said one neighborhood woman, who asked not to be identified. “Police say the arsonist probably lives in the area. And the fires are still continuing. That car across the street was set afire just this past Saturday night.”

Police confirmed Monday that the arsonist had struck again this weekend. “A vehicle parked in that block was set on fire Saturday night,” said Officer Robert Oakley, spokesman for the Newport Beach Police Department.

Oakley added that the neighborhood has now had about 10 trash fires since March 19, in addition to the house fires and vehicle fires.

“We think it’s someone in the immediate area because all the crimes have been so local,” he said. “We think it’s someone who is very familiar with the neighborhood.”

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Police have stepped up patrols, but Oakley said so far there are few clues: “We have no leads or suspect information. It could be more than one person involved; we really don’t know.”

Oakley said police have scheduled a meeting April 11 at 7 p.m. at a neighborhood meeting house to discuss the arsons.

Residents in the arson-stricken block were reluctant Monday to talk to a reporter. The few who spoke were fearful about the arsons and did not want their names used.

“The fires started the week of Easter vacation,” said a 16-year-old girl kicking a soccer ball. “At first there were some trash can fires, and then the house fires. People are getting a little nervous. We stay up at my house until about 12 at night, watching.”

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A woman who lives near the two fire-burned houses agreed to talk, but only if her name was not used.

“There was a car that was burned up at the end of the block,” she said. “Then there was a trash can fire at several places, and newspapers set on fire in front of houses, and then the house fires on Easter night.

“The thing is, it really is scary. I get up at night two or three times, and I walk to the front of the house and look down, but of course I never see anything happening. But it makes you worry.”

The woman said she was at home Easter night when fire struck a nearby house at 1824 Port Westbourne Place.

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“It was like a bang,” she said. “Then my husband looked over to that house, and it was already going up in flames and sparks going everyplace.”

The house was empty, undergoing remodeling, police said.

Police spokesman Oakley said fire investigators have determined that some kind of liquid fuel, perhaps gasoline, was used to start the blaze.

Fire Spread to Roof

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That fire spread to the roof of a home next door, at 1830 Port Westbourne Place. According to Newport Beach Deputy Fire Chief Tom Arnold, the fire caused $126,000 damage to the first house and $180,000 next door.

Residents have temporarily vacated the house at 1830 Port Westbourne Place; its doors and windows are boarded up.

In a childish scrawl, someone has scribbled graffiti on one of the plywood boards sealing up the front door, reading: “The gang was here” and “We set all the fires.”

A woman resident a few houses away said: “Some children probably put that graffiti on the house. But it’s not funny. This whole thing is such a worry. And what can we do? What can we do?”

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ARSON FIRES

Newport Beach police report these arson fires in the 1800 block of Port Westbourne Place:

March 19--automobile set on fire.

March 24--automobile set on fire and numerous trash fires ignited.

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March 26--vacant house at 1824 Port Westbourne Place set on fire, with the fire spreading to the neighboring house at 1830 Port Westbourne.

April 1--automobile set on fire.

(Residents say there have been several additional incidents of newspapers being set afire in front of their houses between March 19 and April 1.)


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