Friday, October 19 , 2018, 6:40 pm | Fair 81º


Arson Task Force Makes Fire Investigations a Joint Effort in Santa Barbara County

As local agencies collaborate on cases, DA pushes for Sacramento to expand access to arson registry

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.

“It’s never been so cohesive and organized,” Santa Barbara city Fire Marshal Joe Poire told Noozhawk.

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.

In Sacramento, Dudley is pushing hard for legislative change and is sponsoring Assembly Bill 2033, introduced by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo.

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.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >