Santa Barbara County fire investigations have become a regional effort with the District Attorney’s Arson Task Force, which has helped agencies solve more cases — faster — and track serial arsonists throughout multiple jurisdictions.
Every month, the conference room at the District Attorney’s Office, 1112 Santa Barbara St., is packed with fire and law enforcement officials who meet up to talk about all things fire.
Before Joyce Dudley was elected district attorney and started the group, agencies rarely communicated or collaborated with teach other. Now, she says, “the camaraderie is off the charts.”
At the last meeting, representatives of participating agencies said the task force has helped in responding to fires and getting broader support for investigations and training. Suddenly, 30 people can weigh in on a theory or help with a challenging case, instead of each department working alone.
Sharing information and people has helped everyone with training, since they get on-scene experience with different kinds of fires and investigations, said Dena Foose, a fire engineer with the Lompoc Fire Department.
The task force meetings are filled with people from the county Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service, Vandenberg Air Force Base’s fire department, UCSB campus police and fire marshals, the Sheriff’s Department, city fire and police departments, and District Attorney’s Office staff members.
“I bet it’s a big number of cases that have had at least one person help with the investigation,” said Santa Barbara Fire Investigator Ryan DiGuilio.
The agencies have established a call-out system so anyone available and interested can respond, Dudley said.
Usually about 9 percent of a fire’s investigative time is on the scene, and a fire can’t always be called arson — or even suspicious — until later, Poire said.
In fact, many suspicious fires are classified as undetermined if they can’t be proven to be arson, which is why witness interviews are important, said county Fire Investigator Jay Snodgrass.
To that end, agencies are training more law enforcement officials in arson investigations and Dudley has dedicated employees who work arson cases and respond to scenes to conduct witness interviews alongside fire crews.
District Attorney investigator Bob Lowry and Deputy District Attorney Mary Barron have attended trainings for arson and are usually more skilled at interviewing — and less busy on the scene — than firefighters, Dudley explained.
“The task force has been helpful for all of us,” said UCSB Deputy Fire Marshal Eric Ruse, whose campus department has been busier than usual lately with an arson case at a construction site and two firebombings at the Sheriff’s Department’s Isla Vista Foot Patrol substation.
Ruse said members of the county Fire Department and CAL-FIRE were on the construction site fire scene immediately, on their hands and knees in the dirt looking for clues for hours.
“Without them we would have been lost,” he said.
The task force also forms a critical link between fire and law enforcement departments. Although California has a registry of all convicted arsonists, the state Department of Justice limits database access to law enforcement agencies.
“So, the fire suppression teams have no clue if an arsonist lives at the location they’re responding to,” Dudley said.
The Sheriff’s Department works with county firefighters to get them relevant arsonist information, but only for unincorporated areas, Snodgrass added.
The measure would give fire departments and fire protection districts access to the arson registry, but the bill was tabled this year after the costs and hearing schedule made it obvious it would die in committee.
Undeterred, Dudley and Achadjian’s office are working with the Department of Justice to come up with a cheaper implementation plan so arson investigators get the information they need, said Craig Swain, a spokesman for Achadjian. It will be introduced again next year.
The arson registry database runs off a specific program and isn’t Web-based, so every fire station would have to have a specific line installed, at about $10,000 each, or have a whole new system developed for access, Swain said. Cost is the same reason a similar bill was abandoned a few years ago, he added.
When the database was set up in 1985, it was on the same system as the sex offender registry, so there were privacy issues with having nonlaw enforcement personnel have access, Swain said.
“No one anticipated back then how much easier it would be on the Web,” he said. “But the Web probably wasn’t as secure back then as it is now, either.”