Although the number of tips has dwindled, fire officials said Thursday that arson investigators are pursuing 30 to 40 leads, hoping one will nail the arsonist who set the ruinous fire here in October.
A team of three full-time arson investigators from the Orange County and Laguna Beach fire departments have so far checked about 480 leads since the wildfire destroyed 366 homes and caused an estimated $400 million in damage, Laguna Beach deputy Fire Chief Rich Dewberry said Thursday.
“Hopefully we’ll have something out of it,” Dewberry said. “It involves a lot of legwork and a lot of time. . . . It’s quite an extensive and painstaking process to work through.”
Investigators, not wanting to jeopardize their work, declined to be specific about the potentially promising leads they have received.
“They’re just very meticulously going through” the leads, Orange County Fire Department spokeswoman Kathleen Cha said. “It’s still very much an open investigation.”
It was about 11:45 a.m. on Oct. 27, when the fire started in brush about 100 feet west of Laguna Canyon Road, a mile south of the San Diego Freeway. Pushed by gusting Santa Ana winds, the fire roared over more than 16,600 acres and damaged or destroyed homes in Laguna Beach and Emerald Bay. There were no injuries.
Investigators have said the main clue in determining that the fire was purposely set is the absence of physical evidence, such as downed power lines, half-burned cigarette butts or other things that would suggest it was accidental.
The fire also started well off Laguna Canyon Road, further leading investigators to rule out an accidental start.
At the peak of the investigation, the arson team consisted of 14 full-time investigators from state, county and local fire agencies, with support from the district attorney’s office and state fire marshal’s office.
Later in November, as the number of new leads began to dwindle, the team was scaled back to its current three full-time investigators.
In an effort to crack the case, firefighters in mid-November handed out thousands of yellow flyers to motorists on Laguna Canyon and El Toro roads in the hopes some commuter may have seen something.
The flyer reminded drivers that there is a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist. That tactic yielded about 50 new leads, Cha said.
Earlier in the investigation, a 22-year-old Lake Forest man was questioned in connection with the wildfire but later cleared of any involvement. He was arrested, however, on suspicion of receiving stolen property and impersonating a firefighter.
Although tips are coming in much slower now, investigators have received an occasional call in recent weeks, Cha said.
She stressed that the case won’t be closed until an arsonist is caught.
“It’s never too late if people all of a sudden remember something or have been reluctant to come forth,” Cha said.
Anybody with information is urged to call (714) 744-0515.