LA firefighters on New Year's alert amid arson attacks

LOS ANGELES Sat Dec 31, 2011 10:27pm EST

1 of 4. Los Angeles city fire fighters battle one of many carport fires in the early morning hours in Sun Valley, California December 31, 2011. About three dozen vehicles have been intentionally burned in the Los Angeles area the past two days, causing damage estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and setting off a broad police and fire investigation.

Credit: Reuters/Gene Blevins

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Firefighters in Los Angeles were steeling themselves for a busy New Year's eve on Saturday, following a rash of arson fires that saw more than 30 cars torched in recent days.

Authorities are on the lookout for at least one suspect amid fears more blazes could result in serious injury.

"Our crews have been told they are going to be busy tonight, no question about it," said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey.

"We are going into what we call 'augmented dispatch,' where we send extra crews to every call," he said.

Those preparations were put into practice early on Saturday evening, when firefighters responded to a vehicle in flames in a carport in Hollywood. The blaze was quickly confined to the car and no injuries were reported, Humphrey said.

The cause of this latest car fire and whether it was due to arson was still under investigation.

So far, no residents have been wounded from the spate of arson attacks, but one firefighter was treated and released for injuries suffered at the site of one blaze, authorities said.

At some locations, fires have spread from torched cars to carports and homes.

One of the blazes damaged a house in the Hollywood Hills, where The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison was inspired to write the 1968 song "Love Street" about his girlfriend Pam Courson and what was then a hippie hangout.

Los Angeles police have stepped up patrols and the city fire department planned to maintain a command post for the New Year's weekend in an area where many of the blazes have occurred.

Arson investigators have been called in to review video footage, map where and when the fires were set, and interview witnesses.

Investigators were trying to determine if the string of fires was set by one person or more than one person, said Officer Norma Eisenman, a Los Angeles police spokeswoman.

Police also said they were looking for a man driving a 1990s Lexus ES300.

At least 11 vehicles were burned on Saturday in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, police said. The city fire department reported vehicle or structure fires at other locations.

The early Saturday fires followed on 21 intentionally set fires involving vehicles or car ports in the Hollywood area late on Thursday and early Friday morning, according to the fire department.

With blazes having spread to structures, the fire department provided a "conservative" estimate of $350,000 in property damage for arson attacks on Thursday and Friday alone.

Authorities were offering rewards totaling $60,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist, the fire department said.

"We are dead serious about trying to apprehend the individual or individuals who are responsible for this," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told reporters on Friday. "We want to get these S-O-B's before they hurt somebody."

Aside from bracing for possible arson attacks, Humphrey said firefighters would also have to deal with more common occurrences on a holiday, such as early morning car crashes.

No suspects were in custody on Saturday, Eisenman said. Police released people who had been detained in the investigation after determining they had no connection to the fires, she said.

Investigators were going over numerous tips from residents and surveillance recordings from area apartment buildings, Eisenman said.

The investigation includes the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Los Angeles County Sheriff, Los Angeles County Fire Department and Beverly Hills Fire Department.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by David Bailey)

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