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49 Fire arson investigators aren’t giving up in suspect search

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Larry Dykes has moved on. A 49 Fire victim, he’s owner of one of the 64 North Auburn homes destroyed in the catastrophic arson blaze on Aug. 30, 2009, that Cal Fire investigators have yet to solve. But others in his neighborhood continue to look to Cal Fire investigators for answers. Investigators say they’re hopeful that someone will call their tip line with a snippet of information that will allow their own jigsaw puzzle of clues to evolve into a cohesive portrait of the arsonist and solve the crime. “We’d particularly like to speak to people who drove by the place where the fire was set just before it started,” said Battalion Chief Bill Mendoca, who has served as investigation leader since the afternoon of the fire. Cal Fire Unit Chief Brad Harris said the $10,000 reward is still being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of an arson suspect. Tips on the fire can be made through Cal Fire’s hotline at 1-(800)-468-4408 either anonymously or by name. So far, Mendoca said Cal Fire has received what he estimates are hundreds of tips, although none had been received in the past 30 days. “We’re still actively investigating and following up every lead we get,” Harris said. “As time goes by, they’re getting few and far between. But we won’t give up. It’s still an active case with our department and we’re working with the sheriff’s office and the district attorney.” Dykes, a former firefighter in Milpitas and Santa Cruz, stepped out of his newly rebuilt house on Friday to confer with landscapers. He looked up at four hawks soaring into a sky that had been filled with smoke and flames just more than 18 months earlier. The series of events that Sunday afternoon are crystal clear as Dykes talked and continued to look up at the clear blue sky and the hawks circling on the breeze. Dykes was watching golf on TV and Tiger Woods was missing a putt. He had switched channels when he heard a slamming sound. He looked out and saw that his garbage can had been thrown into the side of his house by a push of hot air. On a ridge about 200 yards to the south, he saw fire. But he went back inside to watch TV again, confident the flames would never hit his Parkway Drive neighborhood. Dykes got one non-mandatory evacuation call by phone and then sheriff’s and highway patrol cars came through the neighborhood using vehicle-mounted loudspeakers to announce “everyone out,” he said. As he backed out of the driveway, he saw flames red and spreading over the bark groundcover on his neighbor’s front yard. As he drove down Parkway Drive to safety he could see two houses on the street being consumed by flames. By the time the fire had been extinguished, 64 homes and 10 businesses had been destroyed. Property losses were estimated at $40 million. Investigators would say the fire originated on Rock Creek Road near Highway 49. For Dykes and other residents of the rebuilt Parkway Drive subdivision, which bore the brunt of the damage, the memories linger and the sense of loss can hit at any time. But Dykes said that even the arrest of a suspect wouldn’t affect his life now. And a conviction is going to be difficult, he added. “I know how this stuff works and I don’t think they’ll ever find who did it unless he told somebody,” Dykes said. So Dykes said he’s choosing to move on. “For me, I’m not paying much attention to it anymore – it’s not going to make any difference,” Dykes said. “It’s over and done with.” The Parkway Drive area is a different subdivision now. The sense of newness competes with the reminders of loss on every block, as new houses with solar panels on the roof stand next to empty lots with “for sale” signs. Betty McReynolds, a resident for 22 years of the neighborhood, chose to rebuild and remain. A lot next door is empty but she said it’s being readied for construction of a spec house. Another empty lot nearby was the home of an elderly couple who went into an assisted living facility rather than return, she said. Other houses that have been rebuilt or lots that are empty have been sold by former residents fearful of another fire, she added. As a visitor drives by, a family was being welcomed at one rebuilt home by a real estate salesman. “I really think it’s kind of a shame that they haven’t come up with any ideas on who set the fire,” McReynolds said. “With as many people who were around the area, it seems someone would have seen something. It was Sunday afternoon after all, not the middle of the night.” McReynolds said she isn’t fearful of another fire but continues to have a sense of loss. “You have nothing,” she said. “It was a tough year.”