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Dirty Work : Arson Investigators Painstakingly Comb Fire Area

Times Staff Writer

Walt Scheuerell was down on his hands and knees in the ditch beside Turnbull Canyon Road, pawing through the loose dirt. It was hot and it was dusty, and the sweat was trickling down his face.

“We still haven’t found anything,” the burly, 49-year-old arson investigator said. “We’ll keep looking.”

Scheuerell, a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; his partner, Detective Barney Villa, 39, and Bill Franklin, 50, an investigator with the county Fire Department, spent most of Wednesday afternoon combing about half an acre of charred brush on a sunbaked, roadside slope half a mile east of the Whittier city limit.

Their challenge is to determine--if they can--what started the brush fire that blackened 1,500 acres, destroyed 13 homes and burned portions of eight more in the Puente Hills on Monday, causing damage estimated at more than $4.3 million.

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“From what the witnesses say, from what we see and from what we know about the way the wind blew, this area right here is the point of origin,” Scheuerell said, pointing to the blackened hillside that marks the southwest quadrant of the burned area.

“What we’re looking for now is the exact point where it started,” he said. “If we find that, I think we can find the cause.”

Scheuerell explained that what he was looking for was “what’s left over” after a fire starts--things like fireworks fragments, match stubs, cigarette ashes or the sort of residue left by burning gasoline and other flammable liquids.

“We haven’t found any of those things,” he said. “We haven’t eliminated any of those things either.”

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Scheuerell said he could probably rule out lightning--"check the weather that day.” He said he could also rule out downed power lines--"we haven’t found evidence of any.”

But he was not yet willing to confirm fire officials’ earlier assessment that the fire was man-caused.

‘We Don’t Know’

“What I can say is that it was a suspicious fire,” he said. “That means we don’t know yet what caused it.”

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The Puente Hills fire was just an ugly memory Wednesday, but three other wildfires burned throughout the afternoon and into the night in Riverside County, county fire officials said.

The largest of the three--near Interstate 15 in the Temescal Canyon area south of Corona--was moving south toward the town of Alberhill after charring more than 1,300 acres of brush. No evacuations were ordered, but residents in the path of the blaze were told to be prepared to move if necessary.

Another fire broke out in the early afternoon near the 1984 Olympic Games shooting venue in the Prado Dam area. Fanned by onshore winds, the flames spread rapidly southeastward into the Prado Recreation Area northwest of Corona, blackening about 750 acres of grasslands, brush and timber but posing no immediate threat to homes.

The fire was contained by 5 p.m., with full control expected early today, county fire officials said.

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The third blaze, in the Box Springs area above Moreno Valley, about 10 miles east of Riverside, had charred about 1,200 acres of brush by nightfall, authorities said. No structures were threatened.

While more than 800 firefighters battled the three blazes in Riverside County on Wednesday afternoon, the only official vehicle still parked in the Puente Hills burn area was the pickup truck that had carried the three arson investigators to the area where they think Monday’s fire started.

Scheuerell, Villa and Franklin were working their way slowly up the slope, about 10 yards above the roadway, when a motorist stopped to offer some information.

The informant--a local resident--said he had seen a “suspicious” van in the area several times before the fire. The officers took down the information, which would be added later to a growing file of evidence and witness accounts.

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“It’s a lead,” Scheuerell said. “How workable, we don’t know yet.”

The man drove off, and Scheuerell, Villa and Franklin resumed their painstaking chore.

“The cause of this fire may never be determined positively,” Scheuerell said. ". . . But right now, we’ll keep looking.”


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