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Widespread Arson Taking Place, and It's Suspected in Some of the Massive West Coast Wildfires

09-18-2020
Arsonfires
A firefighter puts out a hot spot along Highway 38 northwest of Forrest Falls, Calif., as the El Dorado Fire continues to burn Thursday afternoon, Sept. 10, 2020. The fire started by a device at a gender reveal party on Saturday. (Will Lester/The Orange C

More than 17,000 firefighters are battling more than two dozen major wildfires in California alone.

Officials blame the fires in the Golden State for at least 25 deaths. A firefighter is the latest casualty, dying while battling a wildfire in California that officials said was sparked by a device used to reveal a baby's gender.  The forest service reports the firefighter died in the San Bernardino National Forest while crews were fighting the El Dorado fire.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) says that the fire started earlier this month from a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used at a gender reveal event. 

Authorities have not released the identities of the couple whom Cal Fire said is allegedly responsible for the El Dorado fire. The device was set off in a field and quickly ignited dry grass. The couple frantically tried to use bottled water to extinguish the flames and called 911. They could face criminal charges and be held liable for the cost of fighting the fire.

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Arson on the Rise Out West

But some of the other West Coast fires may have been set intentionally. Arson is on the rise in and around the area of Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recently released data from the Los Angeles Police Department. (LAPD)

The data reveals that between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year, there were nearly 400 recorded arson incidents, a 43% increase from the same period in 2019 and the highest in the last five years, according to ABC7 Los Angeles

BLM Supporter Arrested, Accused of Arson

Other cases of possible arson have been reported across the Pacific Northwest as well. In Puyallup, Washington, Jeffrey "Jeff" Acord, a known Black Lives Matter supporter, was arrested by Washington State Patrol troopers after allegedly setting a fire in a highway median and live-streaming it to Facebook. He ended up videoing his own arrest. 

Acord told the troopers that he was in the area looking for an expensive camera that he lost when he happened to roll up on the fire. But the authorities had spoken to him earlier that day after a woman called to report a man walking on the highway holding lighter, Q13Fox reports. 

At one point in the video, which has since been removed from Facebook, an officer can be heard saying, "I've got lots of concerns about why you're here today." Later on the video, police were heard questioning Acord about his lost camera and where he was searching, according to Heavy.com

Arson Suspected in Almeda Fire

Arson is also suspected in the deadly wildfire in Ashland, Oregon that killed at least two people and destroyed roughly 600 homes.

The Mercury News reports the blaze dubbed the Almeda fire began in Ashland and, driven by high winds, quickly spread out of town to neighborhood communities. 

Ashland police chief Tighe O'Meara told Reuters that police detectives were treating the blaze as suspicious, but declined to give further details.

"We have good reason to believe that there was a human element to it," he said. "We're going to pursue it as a criminal investigation until we have reason to believe that it was otherwise."

Other Cases of Suspected Arson  

In Salem, Oregon, a man was charged with arson after a raging wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes.  

Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 41, was jailed on two charges of arson, 15 counts of criminal mischief, and 14 counts of reckless endangering for a fire that was set in the Phoenix area in southern Oregon, according to ABC7 Los Angeles

Another man in Portland started a brush fire with a Molotov cocktail before he was apprehended.  Portland Police reported Domingo Lopez, Jr. was suspected in setting at least five other small fires. Lopez was charged with six counts of reckless burning. He was being held for a mental evaluation at a local hospital. Thankfully, all of the fires he allegedly set were extinguished. 

A Mapleton, Oregon man was arrested earlier this month in connection to the Sweet Creek Fire that's burned more than 382 acres, according to Eugene television station KMTR.  

Elias Newton Pendergrass, 44, was charged with Arson in the first degree, the Lane County Sheriff's Office said.  

KMTR also reported law enforcement officials were looking for another suspect attempting to start fires at the Dexter State Recreation Area, near Dexter, Oregon.

Dexter Rural Fire Chief Matt Peterson said a middle-aged man with arm tattoos was seen "lighting two fires in the bushes as you turn towards the dam."  The chief also noted, "several good Samaritans extinguished the fire prior to our arrival."

Altogether, wildfires have burned more than 5 million acres so far this year across western states. 

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