Arson watchers spot ‘suspicious activity’


You’ve pulled over by the side of the road in Malibu, and decide to hike up to the top of a canyon for a view. Immediately someone shows up and asks who you are and what your business is. That person could be an old lady or a 12-year-old child.

Before you tell the person to take a hike, don’t get your blood pressure up. This person might be one of Allen Emerson’s Community Arson Watch volunteers.

“Actually, we don’t have face- to-face confrontations,” says Emerson. “We observe. If we can get a name, fine. If not, we at least have a description.”

Emerson, a retired restaurant owner living in Topanga, has been involved with the Arson Watch for 18 years. He spends hundreds of hours each month devoted to the cause.

There are six different teams of volunteers, with Malibu having 51 people.

“A lot of our members, as homeowners, have had close calls with fires so that’s what motivated them to sign up as volunteers,” said Emerson.

“Our main focus is to spot ‘suspicious activity,’ said Emerson, which he defines as “people or cars which are out of place.”

He gave an example from his own logbook. Last week he was driving along an empty road in Malibu and saw a car parked where there usually are none. He wondered, “Is the person that owns that car down there just hiking; or starting a campfire or . . .?”

He checked it out, found the person just wanted a view of the ocean, and went on his way.

Every time a suspicious activity is observed, arson watchers fill out a report, indicating the person’s name if given, the description of the vehicle and license plate, time of day, location, etc. After a week the reports are shelved, but if a fire happens to start, this information is made available to the fire department as soon as possible, in the event one of the observed might be an arsonist.

Emerson looks upon the Arson Watch’s activities as only slightly intrusive, but weighs the intrusion against the fact that, as he sees it, anybody living in the Malibu area lives in a fire area.

“If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t be bothered by being asked what you’re doing,” he said.

Emerson has never made a formal study of what is an arsonist.

“I understand that they are usually disgruntled persons, who get a feeling of power by getting all of those pieces of equipment rolling.”

The 1993 fire, he speculates, was started by arson.

“But it was never proven. In fact,” he said, “arson is very difficult to prove, unless you can find some residue of some flammable liquid. You almost have to catch someone in the act in order to convict them on arson.”

Community Arson Watch is set up primarily as a deterrent, Emerson said. The members don’t hide what they do.

“We wear orange vests, some of us have yellow flashers on our cars–we carry scanners. We’re high profile,” he said.

The ultimate goal of Arson Watch volunteers is to spot a fire that just started and get the word to the fire department, fast. There have been at least two incidents when members of this group spotted a fire in the early stages.

Fires are caused by a myriad of circumstances. Lightning strikes are fairly rare in Malibu. More often, fires are started by careless use of cigarettes, metal blades on lawnmowers striking rocks and downed high voltage power lines. Another common cause is sparks caused by a careless welder.

“We had one that started when a welder was making a wrought-iron gate,” said Emerson.

“Downed power lines are what started the 1996 fire,” he said. “When the Santa Ana winds blow, firemen have a double danger–that downed lines will start fires and then the wind will propel the fire faster than it does on a windless day.”

The option of installing wires underground is available in some areas, but not in Malibu.

“They could, but with our terrain it’s not going to happen,” said Emerson.

The team uses hand-held mobile radios to communicate. The radios represent the biggest expense of their approximately $10,000 per year budget. A fee has to be paid to the repeater stations to repeat their broadcasts so they reach a wider area.

“Communication is what we need most,” said Emerson.

If a fire starts, Emerson has a set procedure.

“I assign a patrol to go to the fire, to connect with the radio base station operator to relay any latest information,” he said.

Emerson has lots of advice for homeowners.

“You should always have a fire extinguisher,” he said. “Not just in your kitchen, but in your workshop as well.”

Another key bit of advice is for owners with chimneys to put spark arrestors atop their chimneys. A spark arrestor is nothing more than a screen that breaks big bits of ash into little flakes so the ash will be less likely to waft out into the air, possibly starting a brush fire. If you use your fireplace a lot, Emerson said, you should have a chimney sweeper come and clean it because if too big a build-up of combustible material lines the chimney, it could catch fire.

One little known danger that’s relatively new is the fact that all the cars sold in the U.S. in the last decade have catalytic converters, basically little ovens to burn exhaust gases. The converter temperatures easily exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit at times.

“If you park a car with a hot catalytic converter on tall grass,” Emerson warns, “you could start a fire that will not only burn your own car up but start the whole neighborhood afire.”

Another thing homeowners can do is work on an evacuation plan when there’s no fire danger, so they will be ready if one does happen. The plan should include what will be moved, who goes where and where family members will meet up.

“And don’t try to stay until the fire gets close, “said Emerson. “If you wait too long, you might not be able to get out because the fire could block the road.”

Anybody who has trouble organizing and moving, such as the elderly or children, should be evacuated at the first hint of fire, no matter how far away it may seem.

Also, Emerson does not advise anyone to stay with the house and fight the fire unless they are prepared not only equipment-wise–with a pump, a generator and a hose–mentally and physically.

The Arson Watch does not report on structures that need brush clearance.

“That’s the fire department,” said Emerson.

They also do not tell people to evacuate, but they do assist the Sheriff’s Department in traffic control.

Emerson has clocked 100,000 miles on vehicles since joining Arson Watch. One thing the program could use, he said, is a new command vehicle–one with four-wheel-drive so he can get off-road to see what those SUV’ers are up to.

Can we all relax when the fire season is over?

“There is no ‘fire season’ per se,” Emerson said laughing. “When we get sufficient rain, that will be the end of the fire season.”