Law enforcement officials now suspect several of the California wildfires that have killed 18, consumed more than 718,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,400 homes in 10 days were deliberately set – increasing speculation there is a terror connection to the blazes.
One man has been arrested so far — Dikran Armouchian, 23, of Pasadena.
Damage estimates exceed $2 billion, but that figure is expected to rise substantially as an inventory of firefighting costs and lost property is completed.
Hills ablaze near San Diego (Courtesy Miles Torres)
The San Bernardino County sheriff’s department is looking for another man in his early to mid-20′s who was seen leaving the origin of a fire Saturday, driving a light gray van. The county is offering a $50,000 award for information leading to the conviction of the person responsible for the fire.
The fires are now one of the deadliest and costliest disasters in California. But it is expected to get worse because of large numbers of pine trees killed by drought and a beetle infestation in the San Bernardino National Forest.
“The fire when it gets started there will be of biblical proportions,” Andrea Tuttle, director of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the New York Times. “It’s going to be the most intense fire that we have ever seen.”
Smoke plume near San Diego (Courtesy Miles Torres)
While Southern California law enforcement authorities investigate an eyewitness report of arson in at least one of the major wildfires, there is new evidence terrorism was behind other recent wildfires in Europe and Australia.
In the devastating forest fires that swept through the Maures mountains near the French Riviera in late July, investigators found Molotov cocktails, or gasoline bombs, were used to ignite the blazes that killed at least four and destroyed 50 homes.
Luc Jousse, the mayor of Roque-Sur-Argens, called the fires “a new form of terrorism.” President Jacques Chirac threatened those responsible with “sanctions of an extraordinary gravity.”
The fires in France were the worst ever in the region.
In addition, southern Italy also was hit last summer with devastating wildfires also believed to be the result of arson.
In August, Australian authorities launched an investigation into reports al-Qaida planned to spark brushfires in a new wave of devastating terror attacks.
A June 25 FBI memo to United States law enforcement agencies revealed a senior al-Qaida detainee claimed to have developed a plan to start midsummer forest fires in the U.S.
The terrorist hoped to mimic the destruction that devastated Canberra last summer, killing four people and destroying more than 500 homes, as well as in other parts of Australia.
The memo, obtained by the Arizona Republic newspaper, said the unidentified detainee revealed he hoped to create several large, catastrophic wildfires at once.
“The detainee believed that significant damage to the U.S. economy would result and once it was realized that the fires were terrorist acts, U.S. citizens would put pressure on the U.S. government to change its policies,” the memo said.
The detainee told investigators his plan called for three or four operatives to travel to the U.S. and set timed explosive devices in forests and grasslands.
“Australian security authorities are aware of reports that al-Qaida has considered starting brushfires in the U.S. as a form of terrorist attack,” said a spokeswoman Australian Attorney General Daryl Williams. “Arson attacks are just one of a wide range of scenarios which have been considered as part of our investigations into al-Qaida’s ability to conduct attacks in Australia.”
In fact, Arab terrorists in Israel have started dozens of major forest fires over the years.
As far back as 1988, Israeli police caught more than a dozen Palestinian adults in the act of setting fires, while other Arabs confessed to arson after arrest. Some fires followed specific calls by underground Arab terrorists. A leaflet issued by the Palestinian uprising’s underground leadership called for ”the destruction and burning of the enemy’s properties, industry and agriculture.”
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said at the time: ”The need to set fires, which also leads to murders, is in my eyes worse than fundamentalism.”
Israeli nature reserve authorities said 408 fires in May and June of 1988 destroyed 400,000 acres of land, nearly seven times the acreage burned from 1974 to 1986.
Last year, Gilad “Gidi” Mastai, chief ranger in the Galilee region of Israel, told the Jerusalem Post: “It’s extremely hard to find arsonists, just like it’s hard to close off the Green Line to terrorists. The forests here are on the front line.”
But, he said, the vast majority of deliberate fires are started by Arabs with political motives.
Forest rangers often need the help of the Israel Defense Forces to battle the terror blazes.
Arson cases account for one-third of Israeli forest fires. “Political” arsonists cause the most with negligent hikers a close second.