Three nights, 38 fires: arson attacks sweep Hollywood

Number of incidents make police believe that a gang or copycat arsonists may be responsible

Residents in Los Angeles were on alert once again last night amid a wave of arson attacks which have seen more than 38 vehicles set ablaze in incidents that began last Thursday evening and continued through Saturday night as most of the city celebrated New Year's Eve, with more innocent pyrotechnics.

While there have been no injuries or loss of life, the torching of the cars parked in front driveways or in garages, has put much of the Californian city on edge. In some cases, the fires have spread to adjacent properties. Those damaged so far have included the former home of Jim Morrison, of The Doors, in the Hollywood Hills neighbourhood. The winding road by the house is believed to be the inspiration for the group's song "Love Street".

With huge additional numbers of firemen and police officers deployed on Saturday night, and fire engines stationed in neighbourhoods, the tally in the end was only four cars and little extra damage.

But the failure by the authorities to round up the culprits responsible for the rash of infernos is fuelling growing frustration. Two people were arrested on Friday and taken into custody but new fires continued to erupt.

Officials say it is already the worst string of arson attacks seen by Los Angeles since the riots that rocked the city in 1992. Damage to vehicles and property is put so far about $1m (£644,000). In West Hollywood alone, fire officials said the fires had destroyed about $350,000 worth of property.

One of the New Year's Eve fires broke out in a heavily used parking garage at the Highland Centre in Hollywood, a huge and glitzy complex of shops, restaurants and cinema screens that is also home to the Kodak Theatre, which hosts the annual Oscar ceremonies.

While police have indicated they are looking for a man driving a 1990s Lexus saloon in connection with the fires, the sheer number of incidents suggests that they may be dealing with several arsonists or even some copy-cat ones. On Friday night some of the fires appeared to have been started within minutes of each other, prompting initial speculation that the attacks could be the handiwork of an individual in a car or a on a motorcycle.

Appropriately enough, a police phone hotline has been opened for people to give information and rewards totalling $35,000 have been offered for tips that lead to arrests. "We're pulling out all the stops," Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said. "We're hoping that the person or people responsible will be brought to swift and complete justice."

One couple said they awoke in the early hours of Saturday to hear their windows shattering from the heat of a blaze that eventually destroyed their car. Steve Diaz, 26, and Michelle Villegas, 25, had left their car in a car port outside their home. "As soon as we went out, the heat burnt your face," Mr Diaz, a lab technician, told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't know that it's even sunk in yet what's happened."

Federal investigators have been called in to help the already stretched Los Angeles Police Department.

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