OAKLAND (KPIX) — Waking up in the middle of the night to flames outside your window is scary enough. But imagine knowing that the person suspected of setting fire to the house next door could still be prowling the neighborhood.
That’s what’s currently going on in one East Bay neighborhood.
It happened at 3 a.m. in late May. By the time firefighters arrived, the home on Alcatraz Avenue in North Oakland was engulfed in flames. A cat was the single casualty. Luckily, the family that lived in the house escaped unharmed.
But neighbors are still terrified, some too scared to show their face on camera.
“We’ve all been traumatized, and we weren’t even in the house,” said one area resident.
Just a few nights after they learned the cause of the fire next door was suspicious, they found a burned out candle on their deck.
They also learned of at least two other smaller suspicious fires set on nearby front porches, all around 3 a.m. and within the space of a few weeks.
“You’re trying to piece it all together. And you’re just like, was this an attempt to actually set, like really set fire? Or is this like a warning? Are they going to come back?” said the neighbor.
When days went by with no word on the investigation, one neighbor decided to take action.
“I pulled the footage myself from the corner store. I sent it to the fire investigator and said there’s your guy, that’s him.”
The video shows a man approaching the property just minutes before neighbors said the fire erupted. KPIX asked the neighbor who pulled the footage how he knew that is the arsonist.
“I watched him walk into one of my neighbor’s yards, and I knew that person didn’t live there,” he replied.
Another neighbor described her feelings when she saw the video.
“I had chills. I’m pretty positive I saw the guy walking the next night when I went to walk my dog,” she said.
But resident told KPIX the fire department doesn’t seem to be taking them seriously.
“It’s just been frustrating and I feel like we have had to take charge in tracking it down and that has not helped the trauma and anxiety that we have gone through with it,” said the neighbor.
One expert KPIX talked to thinks the signs are clear.
“It sounds to me like a serial arsonist,” said former chief state fire marshal and forensic fire expert James McMullen. He says this arsonist’s M.O. is an especially dangerous one.
“When you are telling me that this arson is hitting at 3am, that’s the most vulnerable time. You hit a business at 3am, they’re probably not going to have fatalities. Hit residents at 3am and you potentially can,” said McMullen.
But he also allowed that arson investigations can take a long time. And time is something that’s in short supply in big cities like Oakland that are dealing with among other things a huge number of fires at homeless encampments.
OFD responded to a whopping 814 encampment fires since it started keeping track of them last year, along with 138 RV fires.
“They have limited resources and sometimes they are spread thin,” said McMullen.
Arson attacks are investigated by both fire and police. Both agencies turned down KPIX’s requests for interviews on the investigation.
Councilman Dan Kalb, who represents the district, insists the city is doing everything it can.
“We confirmed that recently, that the investigations are not closed. This is completely unacceptable behavior that is criminal and dangerous and puts peoples lives at risk in addition to property and we can’t have that happen,” said Kalb.
As far as the many homeless encampments, Kalb said, “I have not heard from anybody at the fire department that would suggest because of an occasional encampment fire that things don’t get investigated. That’s not true.”
Meanwhile, neighbors aren’t waiting around for answers. They’re moving out of the area.
“I kind of like got pretty disillusioned with the whole thing,” said the neighbor who pulled the store surveillance video.
“I love my apartment. I’m bummed about it, but knowing someone’s still going around setting fires and seeing how bad it can get, I don’t want to relive that or risk that again,” said the other neighbor.
The Oakland Fire Department says in any given year only about 10% of arson cases are solved and a suspect determined. There are 30 confirmed arson attacks so far this year. The department has three investigators and says it would be helpful to have more.
A full statement from Oakland Fire Department Spokesperson Michael Hunt appears below.
“At this time, each of them remains under investigation, and arson has not been eliminated from consideration. We take every fire incident seriously, as well as the investigation that follows, whether it is a residence, a commercial business, or involves a homeless encampment. An investigation is only as strong as the information available. The fires you’re inquiring about are suspicious based on the limited number of likely ignition sources in the vicinity at time and location of the fires. The Fire Department urges anyone with video evidence or who may have personally witnessed any of these incidents to come forward to shed light on what may have occurred. We are committed to working with those directly impacted, the broader community, as well as our partners in law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office to fully investigate and potentially charge those suspected of committing acts of arson.”