Arsonist Sought in Southern California Wildfire The Santiago fire in Orange County is still not contained. And fire officials say it was intentionally set. Investigators are searching for the arsonist as evacuated residents return home to collect their belongings.
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Arsonist Sought in Southern California Wildfire

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Arsonist Sought in Southern California Wildfire

Arsonist Sought in Southern California Wildfire

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

Most of the big fires here in Southern California had been put out or are now contained, but one is still going strong. It's the Santiago Fire in Orange County and it's scorched 28,000 acres and destroyed 15 houses. The fire has also forced 3,000 people to leave their homes. They've been evacuated now for more than a week. A few of them were escorted back into their houses over the weekend.

NPR's Jeff Brady was there.

JEFF BRADY: The Santiago fire started in two separate places at about the same time. That's a sure sign of arson. There's a $250,000 reward out. And just about every one around here knows that investigators are looking for a white Ford pickup truck. So when Silverado Canyon resident Will Otey(ph) described what kind of truck he be driving behind the sheriff escort van...

Unidentified Woman: What kind of truck is it and what color?

Mr. WILL OTEY: It's a white Ford Ranger.

Unidentified Woman: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: He might need the car.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRADY: (Unintelligible) was joking, of course. But a week into this evacuation, residents are looking for any reason to keep the mood light. Will Otey is going back to his house for the first time in a week. He and his wife, Etsuko(ph), have less than half hour to sift through their things and decide what to bring out.

Mr. OTEY: We just sort of made - she made a list and I made a list in my mind of the most important things. We don't think the fire is going to come back but we've got to get stuff that's irretrievable - hard disk, my guitar. I've had that for about, you know, 20 years or something.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

BRADY: Every few minutes a helicopter with a water bucket swinging underneath flies by. It's a constant reminder that even though the fire passed around this canyon, it's still close and could come back.

Next door, Donna Deutch(ph) never evacuated. She says she can get only one radio station up here. That's how she followed the news about the search for the arsonist.

Ms. DONNA DEUTCH: You know, if this moron didn't go and do what he did, we would have been sitting here all week just, you know, praying for everybody else in all the other areas and we would have been okay. We would have been safe.

BRADY: The half hour has almost passed and Will Otey is putting just a few more things in his truck.

Mr. OTEY: All right. We're going to head out there now. We don't want to keep them waiting.

BRADY: We head back down the hill past a dry chaparral landscape that looks like it was just waiting for an excuse to burn.

At the Orange County Fire Authority headquarters there's an ATF command post truck in the parking lot. That agency, along with the FBI, is helping with the investigation. County Fire Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion seems like a just-the-facts kind of guy, until he's asked to comment on the still-at-large arsonist.

Mr. KRIS CONCEPCION (County Fire Battalion Chief, Orange County): How someone could even think of starting a fire - especially where they started this fire and with the weather conditions that we had, knowing how quickly it would grow, and to do it on purpose - is absolutely unconscionable.

BRADY: Concepcion says an arson tip line has brought in 800 calls. Investigators are now following up on those leads.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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