An arsonist was sought in three fires that erupted within minutes of one another in stores along Ventura Boulevard in Studio City on Wednesday, gutting two and causing more than $2.5 million in damage.
Witnesses reported seeing a man run from the scene, his face covered with soot.
Los Angeles City Fire Department investigators said they also suspect that the blazes were intentionally set because of their almost simultaneous timing, the similarity of the businesses hit and the discovery of an empty gasoline can in the rubble.
“One started right after the other--bang, bang, bang,” said Battalion Chief Robert MacMillan. “You don’t have three fires like that all at one time.”
Arson investigators were seeking a man described as “a transient type,” who witnesses said was acting suspiciously at the time the flames erupted.
Fire spokesman Greg Acevedo described him as a white male, about 35 years old, 5 feet, 9 inches tall, weighing 170 pounds, cleanshaven with slicked-back hair, wearing black pants, a dark purple shirt and a black coat.
The first fire, which broke out about 11:30 a.m., was extinguished quickly by an internal sprinkler system. Firefighters preparing to return to the station just after noon saw the smoke cloud from the two major fires that broke out nearby and immediately summoned reinforcements.
Those fires, in a strip of contiguous buildings in the 12100 block of Ventura Boulevard, broke out within a minute of each other and destroyed Pier 1 Imports and Strouds Linen Warehouse, about half a block apart. Three other businesses were damaged.
Hundreds of people evacuated shops and the Mann’s Studio City movie theater as thick smoke enveloped the block-long area.
One firefighter was treated for minor facial burns, officials said.
The Studio City Chamber of Commerce said the managers of three shops across from those that burned received threatening phone calls shortly after the blazes started, warning, “You’re next.”
Authorities said they were unsure whether the calls were connected to the three fires.
The first fire caused only minor damage to the Bed, Bath and Beyond store. The other two stores did not have sprinkler systems and were not legally required to have them, MacMillan said.
The fire at Pier 1 broke out in a section where pillows were sold and the fire at Strouds started in a section where comforters were sold, witnesses said. The flames spread rapidly in the linen and wood merchandise, MacMillan said.
Firefighters found a one-gallon gasoline container and a plastic bottle in the debris of Strouds, said Assistant Fire Chief Richard Olsen. Two security guards at the Thrifty store next to Strouds said they were taking a break in the parking lot behind the stores when they saw a disheveled, soot-covered man with slicked-back hair and dark clothing running toward them just after the fires started.
“He looked like he had been burned,” said security guard Kordell Knox. “He had soot on his face.”
Knox said he and his partner, Fernando Espinosa, asked the man if he had started the fire, and the man mumbled something and ran past them as flames leaped from the back of Pier 1. The guards noticed the second fire at Strouds and went back to Thrifty, next door to Strouds, where they persuaded their initially skeptical co-workers to evacuate, Knox said.
About the same time, two other Thrifty employees saw a man of similar description inside the store. The employees said the man smelled “like motor oil” and made a bizarre announcement:
“There is a man out there looking at a mirror. And he is so ugly that he set the mirror on fire.”
The man left the store, said employee Bryan Miller, who said the same man had been loitering in the store earlier this week and had been asked to leave.
There was extensive water, smoke and fire damage at the Valley Arts Guitar Center next to Pier 1, destroying several vintage guitars in a second-story repair shop, and water and smoke damage to Lamb Realty next to the guitar shop, Olsen said.
Smoke, water and flames also damaged an AT&T; phone store next to Strouds.
Damage from the fires was placed in excess of $2.5 million by fire officials.
Times staff writers Leslie Berger, Greg Braxton and Steve Padilla contributed to this story.