Portrait of an arsonist: 49 Fire probes continue a year after Auburn's worst blaze

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Picture a reality show that follows an arsonist around like the one authorities believe set the 49 Fire. Most likely you’ll be watching a loner who hasn’t done well in school, said arson expert Doug Allen. Odds are the fire starter is a man and probably between the ages of 16 and 26, he said. There’s a good chance the arsonist is a night-owl and makes his way late at night to coffee houses or maybe a local bar. If the standard profile fits, Auburn’s arsonist is suffering bouts of depression – and feels that he can get a high or a sense of renewed euphoria if he lights another conflagration. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he owns a police scanner, so he can monitor the hubbub of activity that follows his crime. And he could be your neighbor, Allen said in a phone interview from his Banning office in Southern California. Allen makes his observations as someone who knows the mind of serial arsonists. He’s taught over 5,000 investigators what to look for and has more than 40 years of experience as an investigator and consultant – including 32 years at Cal Fire. He’s worked more than 100 arson cases. Allen said he’s a strong believer in “good, hard police work” in solving arson cases like the one Cal Fire has been involved in for the past year to bring the arsonist in North Auburn’s catastrophic 49 Fire to justice. That means understanding that the investigations are primarily interview driven, with people pounding the pavement for clues and following up on leads, he said. Solving the case can take a matter of years, not months. One case involving the setting of 300 fires in the San Luis Obispo area, took five years to crack, Allen said. “It’s the hardest crime to prove because it’s done without witnesses,” Allen said. Ninety-five percent of the time, the arsonist is male. Sixty percent of arsonists are between ages 16 and 26, he said. And Lewis said he gets attention from students when he says they should look for the “ugliest girl on the block and then find her boyfriend or husband.” “If he does have a girlfriend or wife, she’s probably very homely,” Lewis said. Allen, who retired from Cal Fire in 1993, spoke with no direct knowledge of the 49 Fire investigation or involvement in the case. But the profile he gave is applicable in about half of all serial arson cases, he said. “The other fire setters fit into a wide range, including women, grandmothers, fire investigators, other types of firefighters and paid arsonists,” Allen said. Serial arsonists will use a delay device and be out of the area before a fire ignites, he said. A few keystrokes in an internet search can show how easy it is to access information on how arsonists can set fires. Kirk’s Fire Investigation, the textbook for investigators, states cigarettes and matches are the most common time-delay devices. In the 49 Fire, Cal Fire investigators concluded last October that the blaze was deliberately set and involved two fires about a quarter of a mile apart. No arrest has yet to be made in the case and Cal Fire is offering no information or description of a possible arson suspect. Cal Fire has also declined to talk about what was used to start the fire. Chelsea Fox, Cal Fire spokeswoman, said this past week that the investigation continues, with Cal Fire investigators logging about 1,300 hours on the case. Twelve tips have been recorded on the Cal Fire 49 Fire hotline established shortly after the fire at 1-800-468-4408. But Fox said many more tips have come in from the public through local channels. Cal Fire wants tips, even vague recollections, to continue to be offered, Fox said. “It’s important for people to know that many crimes remain unsolved for years, until someone remembers an important piece of information and decides to report it,” Fox said. “We encourage anyone to call with information, no matter how small it may seem. Our investigators need all pieces of the puzzle.” Questions and concerns about the Cal Fire investigation and lack of an arrest have also resulted in the launch of an independent investigation by Auburn’s Gumshoe Detective Agency, backed financially by some of the 49 Fire property owners. Don Treco, Gumshoe’s chief investigator, was tight-lipped about the private investigation. “It’s continuing despite lack of cooperation from the Placer County Sheriff’s Office and Cal Fire,” Treco said. “We have collected a number of valuable statements, photos, video and other evidence since beginning our investigation in May.” Gumshoe is continuing to seek witnesses who may have seen the fire starting. Treco said people can contact the agency at or (530) 889-1945. --------------------------------------------------- The cost of the 49 Fire - No people died in the 49 Fire last Aug. 30 in North Auburn. But the estimated costs in damage and fire suppression reached about $41 million, according to Cal Fire estimates. - Using information from the 49 Fire Damage Assessment Report, the average replacement cost values for Placer County is about $175 a square foot. The total market value of structure-related property impacts – including buildings, contents, outbuildings and vehicles – is estimated to be about $40 million. - Cal Fire estimates the approximate assessed value of property saved due to firefighting efforts at $50 million. - No estimates have been made by Cal Fire on business losses. A U.S. Small Business Administration damage assessment that has not yet been released is expected to provide a figure. - Cal Fire has established suppression costs at $1.34 million. That includes fire engines, bulldozers, hand crews, aircraft and support services. Source: Cal Fire