The suspect who ignited as many as 53 arson fires over New Year's weekend used Duraflame-type slow-burning fireplace logs to set the blazes, a knowledgeable source inside the Los Angeles Fire Department tells LA Weekly.
Investigators believe the fire-starter placed the logs on top of the front tires of vehicles, below their fenders, where they would smolder, spark up the flammable rubber and eventually torch the engine bays, which are filled with such accelerants as oil and gas.
It's not clear when the suspect allegedly lit the logs: before placing them or after. But the use of such logs would solve one problem for a suspected arsonist:
Getting away. The use of such slow-burning products might explain how the suspect was able to elude authorities for nearly three nights and still set off a string of blazes that reached from the San Fernando Valley to West Hollywood, often within a one or two-hour window.
[Added]: On the morning of Jan. 2, for example, a dragnet was set up and Laurel Canyon Boulevard — a route from the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood — was reportedly blocked off by police seeking a suspect as the fires raged in the Valley and appeared to be heading south.
Another source inside the investigation told us that liquid accelerant was also used to help the logs, which are normally quite slow to catch fire, burn.
News video footage of Burkart's Jan. 2 detention showed a box inside his van that appeared to us to be similar to the type used to package Duraflame-type logs. At the time, reports indicated that he allegedly used some kind of charcoal briquettes to spark the fires.
Burkart has been charged with 37 counts of setting fires in L.A. County. The spree is said to have caused $3 million in damage.
Strangely, authorities tell the Weekly that a string of about four fires on the Thursday before the Friday-through-Monday spree, which seemed to crop up right outside Burkhart's Hollywood residence, have pretty much been determined to be unconnected. Two people were arrested for that string of blazes.
Harry Burkhart was detained outside a Rite Aid drug store at Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue shortly after 3 a.m. on Jan. 2 after a sheriff's deputy spotted his minivan driving in the area. Two freshly started fires raged within a mile.
A be-on-the-lookout alert had been issued for the vehicle and for Burkhart.
A clerk at the Rite Aid told the Weekly the store did sell Duraflame-brand fireplace logs for the holiday season but is now out of them. It's not clear if authorities believe the suspect might have stopped by in hopes of reloading that night.
Burkhart lived at an address just down the street, at 7274 Sunset Blvd.
View Burkhart's detention Jan. 2 in a larger map
Ed Nordskog, a sheriff's department detective who is the lead investigator on the case, told the Weekly that our understanding of how authorities believe the fires started is “close but not entirely accurate.”
He said that investigators had to “hold back a lot of what he was using,” to save it for court — where only the suspect and authorities would theoretically know how it all went down.
Nordskog just published Torchered” Minds: Case Histories of Notorious Serial Arsonists, and he said that, in a career spanning more than 700 arson investigations and research projects, “There have been hardly any cases like it.”
Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Jaime Moore cautioned the Weekly against publishing this account, saying, “I'd hate for someone to get ideas and to create another problem like this.”
But after conferring with editors and noting that the use of Duraflame-type logs is nothing new in the world of arson investigations (Google it), we decided to publish.
Nordskog said that, armed with what the know about the spree, investigators are looking at regional arson fires outside the three-day spree:
“We're looking at other cases in the area,” he said.