Arsonist on the loose in Antioch

- A firebug is on the loose in Antioch, and arson investigators are asking the public to be watchful.

There have been seven fires this week, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and a few were dangerously close to structures.

"It's pretty scary, when we were standing here, watching it, waiting for the fire department to come," Sheri Thompson told KTVU, Thompson is assistant director of Children's Ministry at Antioch's Church on the Rock.

She and program director Nancy Huffaker were working late Tuesday night, preparing for the next day's summer camp activities, and spotted the fire at about 9:30 pm.

It was burning in grass next to their complex.

They grabbed a garden hose and called 911, also alerting their pastor and his family, who live on the grounds.

"We had to go knock on the door and wake him up because we didn't know how big it was going to get, so it was scary," recalled Huffaker.

The fire next to the church was one of five, all located within a mile of each other, and all set within an hour.

"We've eliminated all natural causes so it's definitely considered arson at this point," Contra Costa Fire Battalion Chief Jim Huntze told KTVU. "We're actively searching for anyone involved."

So far, the only suspect description is a young Hispanic man, in his 20's and clean-shaven.

He may ride a bicycle, or walk, considering the close proximity of the fires, and he may be homeless.

"We refer to it as a hot set, a flick of the bic," observed veteran arson investigator Vic Massenkoff, with the Contra Costa Fire Protection District.

"These crimes are highly unreported everywhere," Massenkoff tol KTVU, "and in any of the Bay Area counties, there are arsons, intentionally set fires, every day."

Two of the other fires the same night were next to a middle school, another behind an apartment complex, and a fifth alongside the fairgrounds.

They were put out quickly, which may be something the fire-setter relies on.

"Many arsonists will say, 'I set it in a place where it wouldn't hurt anybody, or I set it in a way it wouldn't spread very fast'," noted Massenkoff.

"That's a mind game they play with themselves, and the realiy is once that fire is set, they can't control it".

Two new fires set along Highway 4 Thursday night were very small, but are still considered serious, because they show a pattern, and had the potential to be worse.

Members of the Methodist congregation are grateful the wind was blowing away from their campus Tuesday night.

But the ground is charred right up to their parking lot and patio, and they hope for a quick arrest.

"It's pretty sad. It spreads our fire department pretty thin," said Thompson.

"If they're rushing from fire to fire, that gives the next fire more time to burn before they get there."

Massenkoff says most arsonists fit a profile: socially-detached loners with dysfunctional, possibly abusive family backgrounds, a checkered work history, and problems with drugs or alcohol.

And he notes, whenever a serial arsonist is caught, it seems another springs up to take his place.

"It almost seems like there's an apprentice program for fire-setters and as soon as you arrest a journeyman, they call the hall and bring up another apprentice," he said wryly.

The arson tip line to share information is 1-866-50-ARSON, and callers can remain anonymous if they wish.

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