A second arson-caused fire within a week at a new housing tract has destroyed nine homes under construction and alarmed residents who have already moved into the development.
The fires, which occurred while residents were asleep early Sunday and then again early Tuesday, caused an estimated $400,000 damage at Kaufman & Broad's highly promoted California Foothills tract. No injuries were reported.
Investigators have determined that a flammable liquid was poured on the foundations to ignite the partially constructed houses, according to sheriff's arson investigator Terry Danielson.
One hundred ninety houses in the tract are occupied, and the developer plans to build 80 more. Residents were evacuated during both fires. Some reported that their wooden fences and decks were scorched by flying embers.
On Wednesday, a demolition crew entered the construction area to tear down the charred structures, while sheriff's deputies continued to puzzle over the arsonist's identity and motive.
"I don't know whether we've got kids goofing off or union problems or what," said Danielson. "It could be simple vandalism or something more serious than that."
Jeff Mezger, president of Kaufman & Broad's Antelope Valley Division, said he was also bewildered. "We have no motives," he said. "There's no disgruntled subcontractors, no homeowner disputes. It's been a very quiet, smooth-running community. We're mystified."
On Sept. 20, someone ignited a small amount of lumber in the construction area, but authorities say they are uncertain that it was the work of the same arsonist.
The fires caused fearful homeowners to begin organizing a Neighborhood Watch group.
"It might be a pyromaniac, someone who gets a thrill out of watching fires," said James Hall, a postal supervisor who moved his family from Los Angeles to the Palmdale tract just five weeks ago, believing it was a safer environment.
"I came to get away from the rat race, all the ambulances, the fire engines, the shootings and drugs," he said.
Hall joined other residents in a meeting with Kaufman & Broad executives on Tuesday during which the residents demanded increased security. The developer agreed to put up more fencing, post security guards and install floodlights at the construction site.
"We feel a little more at ease, but not totally safe," Hall said. "We're not going to let our guards down."
Shortly after Tuesday's fire, two residents armed with shotguns confronted a man entering the construction site. The residents allowed him in after learning he was a subcontractor assigned to the project.
Danielson discouraged such face-to-face confrontations during a meeting with anxious residents Tuesday night. Instead, he urged them to write down license plate numbers and descriptions of suspicious people entering the neighborhood.
Tina Richardson, who moved her family from Compton to Palmdale six weeks ago, said residents have a right to be edgy after two dangerous fires in quick succession. Soon after Tuesday's fire started just beyond the Richardsons' back yard, her husband, Rudy, smelled smoke, hustled her out of bed and dialed 911.
"By the time I got up, got my kids out and started to wake the neighbors, two houses (in the construction area) were fully engulfed," Richardson recalled. "I was ringing doorbells and saying, 'Get up! Get Up!' I was worried because the embers were going over the roof of my house. It was raining embers in my front yard."
On Wednesday, Kaufman & Broad crews were repairing the damage caused by the embers and removing ashes from yards and driveways near the fire scene.
Despite the new security measures, Richardson said it's difficult to relax after the recent fires. "I think it's fear of the unknown," she said. "You don't know who's doing it. It could be a crazy person, a lunatic out there."
Her neighbors, Henry and Isabel Blum, have also had trouble getting a good night's sleep. "We wake up every hour," Isabel Blum said. "We're afraid to look out the window. It could happen again."