By MARTHA MENDOZA, Associated Press National Writer
SAN BERNARDINO, California (AP) -- There have been more than 500
tips, dozens of cars stopped, a handful of men questioned, at least
one confession and endless rumors, but authorities say they still
haven't arrested anyone who sparked one of the Southern California
There could be lots of suspects. Arson is blamed for at least three
of the seven wildfires still burning in the region.
On Thursday, the San Bernardino County sheriff's office fleshed out a
description of a suspect -- a thin, blond man in his 20s who
witnesses say stepped out of a gray van last Saturday, dropped
something into the brush causing a fire, then climbed back into the
van before it sped away. The wildfire has grown to about 20,000
hectares (50,000 acres), killing four people and destroying 850 homes.
A police sketch of the van's driver, a dark-haired man in his 20s,
has appeared on newspaper front pages and television news broadcasts
"We've got a lot of good leads. We're working hard on this," said
sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Beavers.
Dozens of federal, state and local arson detectives have been working
around the clock, talking to witnesses at evacuation centers,
studying burn patterns where the fires began, and calling for public
Forest Service agent Jerry Moore said a man had confessed to starting
a Ventura County fire that burned three homes and 27,200 hectares
(68,000 acres), but the case remained under investigation.
"Anybody can come in and say 'I did it,"' Moore said.
San Diego County authorities, meanwhile, said they are positive a
wildfire that has so far killed 14 people, including a firefighter,
and burned nearly 1,500 homes was sparked by a lost deer hunter who
set a signal blaze.
He was given a misdemeanor citation. Arsonists could face federal or
state charges, including aggravated arson, which in California
carries a sentence of 10 years to life in prison. They could even
face murder charges.
Investigators had no motive for the arsons. In the past, people have
set "vanity fires" so they can point them out and appear to be
heroes, said Daniel Frias, a fire investigator with the state
Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Others have tried to
torch houses out of revenge.
Various agencies are receiving as many as 100 tips a day from as far
north as San Francisco, but finding wildfire arsonists can be
difficult, Frias said, because they can set time-delay devices or
wait until the coast is clear.
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"Usually when we get a good lead, it's because a witness just
happened to be driving by," he said.