Arsons erupt in area

Olympia and Tumwater were struck by seven arsons in 24 hours Tuesday, and police are working hard to find the culprits before more property damage or worse occurs.

The late night and early morning fires set off sprinkler systems, caused smoke damage at the county food bank and frayed the nerves of residents in two apartment complexes.

The chain of events started with a vehicle fire about 1 a.m. Tuesday outside the Alpine Village Apartments, 301 T St., Tumwater. Later, police learned that someone also set fire to recycling bins at a neighboring building and behind a nearby restaurant Tuesday morning.

Then, about 10:30 p.m., fire alarms started ringing in Olympia. Someone ignited material in a recycling bin behind The Washington Center for the Performing Arts at 512 Washington St. Within an hour, firefighters were dispatched to fires outside the Thurston County Food Bank in the 400 block of Thurston Avenue and in a trash bin at Capitol Way and State Avenue, the Olympia Fire Department reported.

In addition, two minor fires at Reeves Middle School, which triggered sprinkler systems and forced the evacuation of students, also have been attributed to an arsonist. The culprit torched toilet paper rolls in two boys restrooms. The fires likely were set by juveniles.

"It's very likely that was just a mere coincidence," Olympia detective Sgt. Ray Holmes said of the middle school fires occurring on the same day as the others. "But the late-night fires, because of the time frames, are basically pointing to be more than just mere coincidence."

Robert Coit, executive director of the Thurston County Food Bank, said the fire near the food bank was set in an alcove by the conference room of the building. Most of the fire damage occurred on the exterior of the building on the Thurston Avenue side, he said.

Operations at the food bank carried on as usual Wednesday. Workers took advantage of warm weather to open doors and turn on fans for better ventilation, Coit said. The stench of charred wood, metal and plastic lingered, however.

"I was disappointed initially," Coit said. "Anger came later. We really try to help people, and I just couldn't understand why this would happen."

Volunteer Nancy Stahl said she was thankful that bread on hand wasn't stored in the main room.

"The bread would have absorbed the odor and been ruined for these people coming in," she said of low-income clients served by the food bank.

The Washington Center was closed Wednesday after the recycling bin fire triggered its sprinkler system, marketing director Kevin Boyer said.

Fire officials would not allow the building to reopen until they recharged the sprinkler system, he said.

There were no performances Wednesday.

In Tumwater, police have been chasing leads on an unusually high 20 arsons in one area since late last year, including one that damaged apartments and displaced three families.

The area, just southeast of the Trosper Road exit on Interstate 5, tends to generate higher volumes of police calls. Detective Lt. Bruce Brenna said he has asked officers to keep a closer eye on who's out and about in that neighborhood.

"We're there pretty regularly," he said.

Police in Olympia and Tumwater are comparing notes, he said.

"Depending on who is doing this, there may be no logic behind this. We could be dealing with someone who has mental issues, and there may be no logic to find. It's hard to say."

Fire academies nationwide teach that 60 to 80 percent of arsons are set by juveniles, said Special Agent Julianne Marshall with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.The ATF is not participating in the recent investigation, she said.

Serial arsonists tend to be loners, often from broken homes, who are maladjusted and have poor interrelational skills, she said. Arsonists often are under the influence of alcohol when they strike.

She has seen statistics that only 10 percent to 15 percent of arson cases nationwide get solved, although she's not sure about the current rate, she said.

Meanwhile, because Alpine Village apartments in Tumwater has seen eight arsons in two months, nearby residents are wary, said Mike McDougall, a maintenance worker at Tumwater Apartments across the street from Alpine Village.

A resident there found paper burning inside a recycling bin Tuesday morning, but there was no damage, he said.

"They (the arsonist) closed the lid so it didn't get air to ignite," McDougall said. "And someone saw it right away."

Tumwater Apartments generally houses elderly residents, he said. "So people are a little worried about what to do if they have to get out of the building."

Employees at El Sarape in Tumwater, the only restaurant targeted Tuesday morning, aren't taking any chances. They plan to follow police recommendations to install better lighting in the back, General Manager Jose L. Mendez said.

A recycling bin full of cardboard boxes was ignited, Mendez said.

"We were very lucky because we had a couple of oil containers for recycling on the side, but it didn't catch on fire," he said.

The fire damage wasn't significant enough to affect business. "It's something to worry about," he said. "Hopefully, this doesn't happen again."

Lt. Brenna encouraged the public to get involved. "The more people are paying attention to what's going on around them, the better," he said. "Not just who's out and about, but also paying attention to how they're acting."