Red Hot

Who’s Setting This Small Town on Fire?

A small town near the Mexican border is going up in flames. Christine Pelisek reports.

Department of Justice

Last November, a series of fires began to plague the small California city of Brawley. The first fire gutted a large vacant two-story office building. Soon after that, a furniture store, a woman’s gym, a historic theater, and a restaurant were set on fire. On Easter Sunday, a parking structure and a flower shop were also torched. Next came a 99-cent store, and then, last Tuesday, the A Plus Furniture on Main Street was burned to the ground.

In total, more than 10 fires have broken out in Brawley’s downtown core over the last few months, and police and fire officials are trying to determine if the pyrotechnics are the work of a serial arsonist.

Police have now increased patrol, fire trucks are stationed on Main Street, and thousands in rewards have been offered.

Last week, Brawley’s police chief called in the help of investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearm, and Explosives to help them solve the rash of fires. “We are a rural community,” said Brawley police chief Mark Gillmore. “I have 38 officers. No one is an arson specialist. We quickly became overwhelmed.”

The team of federal agents, who are made up of chemical and structural engineers, accelerant canines, and forensic mappers, will determine if the fires are linked to one firebug or numerous culprits. The 30-member National Response Team will also attempt to unravel the motive behind the mysterious fires, and if three additional fires in a nearby residential area in early 2012 are related.

“We are able to deploy our national team to help reduce the cost and personnel used up in these types of investigations,” said ATF special agent Christian Hoffman. “We can come in and drop a crew in and they are ready within 24 hours. They hit the ground running.”

The fires have rattled the rural city of 27,000, which is located 30 miles from the Mexican border town of Mexicali and 70 miles west of Yuma, Arizona, and is mostly known for its Cattle Call Rodeo; as the “Gateway to the greatest adult sand box for off-highway vehicles: the Imperial Sand Dune Recreation Area”; and its close proximity to the Salton Sea, California’s largest inland lake.

“The people are frightened by the whole situation,” said Brawley Mayor Sam Couchman. “We like to think our city is safer than most. The city is gravely concerned. It is our No. 1 priority to solve this. We are doing whatever it takes to get that done.”

Local downtown businesses are especially on edge because the majority of the fires have occurred within a four-block radius. A lot of business owners are worried that their business is next. “Businesses are burnt down around us,” says White Cross Pharmacy owner Raj Rakholia. “Someone is trying to sabotage the city. I’m worried. The city is old and we don’t have many [surveillance] cameras on Main Street. I’ve asked around and no one has seen anything. The fires are early morning when the city is on its lowest guard.”

Rakholia thinks the culprit—or culprits—is targeting specific businesses. “It seems like they are picking and choosing,” he said. “They are all secondary businesses. No one has hit the major clinics, post office, Vons, or city hall. It’s just weird.”

The fires are also making it harder for the city to attract businesses to the downtown area, which is mostly made up of mom and pop shops.

“We are in the process of trying to revitalize our downtown and it is a huge blow,” says Brawley city councilman George Nava. “The estimate losses are over $1 million. It’s a big impact. There were some businesses looking to locate in the area and now they are reluctant and I don’t blame them.”

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The day after the A Plus Furniture fire, the city council offered a $50,000 reward – the largest in the city’s history—for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible. “It is the No. 1 priority of the city and we are addressing it full force,” said Nava. “We hope it will help spur someone to come forward.”

Since the reward was offered, the police department has received close to 30 tips a day. “We are following up on a lot of leads,” said Brawley Police commander Brett Houser. “This is the most significant thing to happen to our downtown. It is not a common occurrence. It is devastating to the community’s morale.”

Meanwhile, Rakholia, who is planning to install surveillance cameras around his pharmacy for protection, has his own theory of who is committing the fires. “My gut is telling me it is a pyromaniac having a good time and likes watching the buildings burn,” he says. “With arson they do it for the thrill of it.”