Cal Heights residents on edge after 8 alley fires in April

It’s been a little over a week since the alley arsonist hit the Cal Heights neighborhood, but residents are still on edge.

With eight late night fires between April 6 and April 23 in the alleys behind homes in Cal Heights, residents have started mobilizing to clear the alleys of anything that can be used as fuel for flames, Candace Payne, a resident in the area, said.

“This guy’s been quiet for a few weeks, but who knows when the next one will hit?” Payne said.

While most of the fires have burned up trash or charred fences, the worst one spread to a backyard animal coop, killing seven pet rabbits and seven pet birds just a few days before Easter.

Fire investigators have so far ruled three of the eight fires as arson. That’s not to say that the other five weren’t intentionally set, it just means they’re considered undetermined, fire department spokesman Matt Dobberpuhl said.

For weeks, blurry or non-detailed photos of a man on a bicycle have been circulating on Facebook among resident groups with captions that state the man is a suspect or person of interest in the fires.

But investigators are cautious about calling anyone a suspect yet.

“There were no eyewitnesses to any of the fires, no video,” Dobberpuhl said. “(The man on the bike) was just a person seen in the area, and he’s not identified as a suspect.”

Payne said she is one of the people who has seen a man on a bike in the area at the times of the fires.

At a community meeting Thursday night, about 200 residents demanded answers from fire investigators and the North Division police commander, pushing both to acknowledge if there is a person of interest in the case, Payne said.

“A lot of us wanted to know if the guy on the bike is a suspect,” she said. After showing investigators the photos of the man, they confirmed to the group that he is a person of interest, she said.

They were also told at the meeting that it doesn’t appear that lighter fluid or any explosives are being used in any of the fires.

While residents were told two police officers are dedicated to patrolling the neighborhood, residents still aren’t convinced that their alleys and homes are safe.

Now Payne and other neighbors are organizing a neighborhood watch.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of confidence in anything other than what we can do for ourselves,” Payne said.

Along with clearing the alleys, residents are installing surveillance cameras, motion detectors and lights in their alleys.

But Payne and others are still concerned about profiling innocent people who may just be walking through the neighborhood or people trying acting as vigilantes.

“We don’t want to have a neighborhood that’s highly suspicious, that doesn’t create a good community feeling,” she said.

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Valerie Osier is the Social Media & Newsletter Manager for the Long Beach Post. She started at the Post in 2018 as a breaking news reporter. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from the Cal State Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband and two cats.
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