Date: 4/10/2009

Associated Press Writer

MIDWEST CITY, Okla. (AP) — Firefighters mopped up hot spots Friday from wind-driven wildfires that injured at least 34 people in western and central Oklahoma and destroyed more than 100 homes.

Three people were killed across the state line in Texas.

The fires began Thursday afternoon along the Interstate 35, the main north-south highway through central Oklahoma. They continued to burn past nightfall, fueled by ferocious winds and an abundance of dry, early spring grass and brush. But lighter winds in the region made things easier for firefighters Friday in both states.

“We have in excess of 100 homes that have been destroyed statewide,” Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said Friday morning. Officials said the Midwest City fire apparently started at a wrecker service, but the exact cause of it and other fires was still under investigation.

Interstate 35 was back open Friday after being closed for several hours in various locations because of the fires.

Gov. Brad Henry declared a state of emergency for 31 central and southern Oklahoma communities, which allows state agencies to speed the delivery of needed resources.

Residents who were evacuated while the fires raged were allowed to return home. For Sammetra Christmon of Midwest City, there was only a blackened, smoking ruin where her home had been.

“The memories, the photos, this is the house I have worked all my life for,” she said Friday as she and her family picked through the smoldering debris. Her 9-year-old daughter was taking it hard.

“She’s devastated, just in tears this morning,” Christmon said. “This is the only house she’s ever known.”

Water-dropping helicopters couldn’t assist the ground effort Thursday because of winds that gusted to more than 60 mph in some areas.

“Anytime you have high winds and low humidity it’s just the perfect storm for wildfires, and that’s what’s happening here,” Ashwood said.

In northern Texas, firefighters blaze raced across thousands of parched acres Thursday, overrunning the towns of Sunset and Stoneburg and forcing the temporary evacuations in several others.

Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham said Friday that a woman died, possibly from a heart attack, after calling for an ambulance Thursday in a fire near Bowie on Thursday.

Two other deaths were reported near Montague, about 80 miles northwest of Dallas. WFAA-TV said the victims were former WFAA reporter Matt Quinn and his wife, Cathy. Their son was injured and was in fair condition at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, the station reported.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said a firefighter helping battle a blaze in Lincoln County, northeast of Oklahoma City, was hospitalized with burns and someone was severely injured after losing control of a vehicle on a smoke-covered road in Stephens County in southern Oklahoma.

The other injuries ranged from minor to moderate, officials said.

At the Midwest City Community Center, where about 75 residents flocked to after flames threatened their homes, Kanisha Busby waited for her parents to arrive. Their home, where she grew up, was destroyed but nobody was hurt.

“It’s hard, but all that stuff is material things that can be replaced; lives can’t be replaced,” Busby said. Residents were given sufficient warning to evacuate, and her father also managed to save his dog, she said.

Susan Staggs, who lives near Midwest City, said Friday that she and her neighbors who gathered at an evacuation point Thursday night could see the glow of flames, not knowing if their homes were being engulfed.

“After dark you could just see the flames crossing the road,” she said. “I had two cats in my house and my horse and goats were still there.” Her home was spared, it turned out, because a pile of gravel and dirt from her neighbor’s driveway project served as a firebreak. But the neighbor’s home was lost.


Associated Press writers Murray Evans in Oklahoma City, Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth, Texas, and Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 3/18/2009

OSLO (AP) — Norwegian police say they have detained a man on suspicion of arson in an apartment building fire late last year that killed six people and injured 12 in Oslo.

The fire ripped through the five-story apartment building Dec. 13, and some residents had to be rescued from the roof with ladders. Police detained the man Wednesday but they declined to identify him other than to say he was Norwegian and in his 40s.

Police say the man was charged in connection with a series of fires, including the one in December. But authorities refused to go into detail because the investigation is continuing.

Police say they will seek a court order to keep him in custody.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 3/13/2009

WEST CHESTER, Pa. (AP) — An investigator says a teenager accused of setting nine fires in an arson-plagued Philadelphia suburb led them to several of the scenes and confessed to the crimes.

Nineteen-year-old Roger Leon Barlow was held for trial after a court hearing Friday. He’s charged with arson and aggravated assault in connection with blazes that broke out in Coatesville between Jan. 2 and Feb. 3.

Federal investigator Jason Wick testified in court that Barlow changed his story several times during an interview, but ultimately admitted setting the fires.

Wick also says Barlow drove him and other investigators to the arson sites and referred to one fire that damaged 15 row houses as “the big one.”

A trial date for Barlow has not been set.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/19/2009

COATESVILLE, Pa. (AP) — A 19-year-old was charged Thursday with setting at least seven fires in an arson-plagued steel town, including a block-long blaze that displaced dozens of people last month.

Roger Leon Barlow Jr., of nearby Downingtown, was charged with arson, aggravated assault and related counts. He was arraigned Thursday afternoon and his bail was set at $9 million.

Staff at the Downingtown district court where Barlow was arraigned said he did not have an attorney.

Barlow is a pyromaniac who liked to watch things burn, Chester County District Attorney Joseph Carroll told The Associated Press.

Coatesville, about 35 miles west of Philadelphia, has tallied 18 arsons this year and 26 last year, one of them fatal. Residents have said they are scared to go to bed at night for fear another fire will break out.

With a suspect under arrest, Carroll said residents should be able to sleep easier, “although I’m not convinced this is the only person involved.”

Carroll said Barlow set a fire late last month that tore through 15 row homes on a single block, displacing dozens of residents and causing an estimated $1.2 million in damage.

In December, authorities arrested three people believed to have been responsible for some of the arsons, including the early December blaze that killed an 83-year-old woman, but the fires continued.

Officials plan to release more details at a news conference later Thursday.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/19/2009

Associated Press Writer

WHITTLESEA, Australia (AP) — The electrician’s tools were incinerated, the trucker’s rig reduced to a useless, burned shell. The deadly wildfires that swept southern Australia destroyed more than lives — they destroyed livelihoods.

As the days since the Feb. 7 blazes wear on, the needs of the survivors grow more complex. Where basic tools of survival like water and food were once enough, residents of the devastated areas now need more: tools to rebuild their lives.

“My biggest point now is getting fathers back to work,” Marisa Pegoraro said Thursday from her chair inside a relief center she has frequented since she and her family narrowly escaped being burned alive in the inferno. “They have to feel like they’re looking after their families.”

As many as 7,500 people were left homeless by the fires that killed at least 208 people almost two weeks ago. These survivors are now living in tents, caravans, borrowed houses or with friends and family. They want to go home. Soon.

In the fire zone, the sound of chain saws felling scorched timber has replaced the rumble of fire trucks pumping water onto smoking ruins as emergency crews work to make the landscape safe for people to return.

The process of rebuilding lost homes is unlikely to begin for months and will take many years, but survivors want to feel that the process is moving forward and they need tools to help clear the rubble from their land and sift through the wreckage.

At Australia’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, a charity, requests are flooding in for wheelbarrows, generators and chain saws, spokeswoman Carol Taylor said.

“They’re going back into their communities,” Taylor said. “They’re wanting tools to clean up what’s left of their property.”

Charities in southern Victoria state have been inundated with donations from across the world since the worst wildfires this sun-blistered country has ever seen.

The disaster’s severity stunned Australia’s 21 million people, who sent more than 100 million Australian dollars ($64 million) to a government-backed Australian Red Cross fund in the first week, with the total still growing.

This week, the Salvation Army asked people to stop donating material goods, saying it has all it needs, though financial donations are still welcome.

Still, the donations pour in.

Dust rises into the sky as massive delivery trucks roll across the dry earth surrounding a relief center in Whittlesea, a donation hub for surrounding towns that were obliterated in the inferno. Warehouses, sporting fields and schools across the region are jammed with everything from jewelry and toiletries to cutlery and cars.

The Whittlesea relief center is piled high with boxes of food and crates of water, mountains of books and toys, stacks of linen and china. The most coveted item? Work boots.

“Initially, because the ground was still so hot and the ashes so deep in some places, they were just such a priority,” said volunteer Janine Morgan.

They are just as important now that families are getting down to the work of clearing the properties to start rebuilding.

Cleaning up the scraps is just one challenge. In tents at the relief center, the homeless can get counseling for grief and advice on how to lodge insurance claims. They can search a makeshift post office for their mail. Volunteer therapists offer massages and others a shampoo and blow-dry for dirty, dusty heads.

“In the first few days, everybody was quite shell-shocked and that’s started to wear off,” said Morgan, whose house was spared by a sudden wind change that pushed the flames away. “The reality sets in. It’s not pretty.”

Pegoraro, on one of what have become regular stops at the center, knows firsthand the sting of reality. The 47-year-old sits among the plastic tubs of donated clothes, her eyes welling with tears as she tells of her family’s narrow escape from death.

On that awful day, she and her husband covered their two children in wet blankets and hid them under a table in the garage as the flames roared through their home. They prayed. And then the house collapsed. Weak from smoke inhalation, the family fled outside and huddled in a paddock all night as the inferno raged around them.

In the aftermath, Pegoraro has not only sought help for her family but has also worked to help members of her razed town, Kinglake, get back on their feet.

One trucker who lost his rig in the blaze was going to have to wait six months until insurance paid for a new one, so she found a donor willing to lend him a replacement. She gathered tools so an electrician who lost everything could go back to work.

It is critical to get the displaced residents enough help to let them return to their properties, Pergoraro said. Children do not want to be relocated away from their friends, and adults need to stay close to their family and friends.

“We need to be here for each other,” she said. “And I think emotionally we need to be here for each other as well.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/14/2009

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — Ten people who built a campfire won’t be charged with igniting a wildfire last fall that destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito, prosecutors said Friday.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Christie Stanley said investigators could not prove who caused the wildfire that blackened more than 65 square miles and destroyed rows of multimillion-dollar homes, including actor Christopher Lloyd’s $11 million home in Montecito. Two people were seriously injured in the blaze.

Investigators had found evidence that the campfire was lit in Montecito about 14 hours before the wildfire erupted Nov. 13, but prosecutors concluded they could not establish who started the wildfire.

“Unfortunately, that’s not an unusual result,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow, whose department helped investigate the cause of the fire.

Stanley said the people who lit the campfire would be charged with misdemeanor trespassing and unlawfully building and using a campfire without permission.

The two misdemeanor counts carry a maximum penalty of a year in county jail, up to a $1,000 fine and three to five years of probation, Stanley said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/14/2009

Associated Press Writer

SYDNEY (AP) — Outrage over the Australian wildfires that killed more than 180 people last week was white hot after police said some of the blazes may have been deliberately set.

The prime minister said the culprits should “rot in jail,” and government officials threatened the maximum charge: murder.

But experts note the difficulty of proving a link between the act of striking a match and causing a death.

Police on Friday charged a man with one count of arson causing death and intentionally lighting a wildfire near the town of Churchill that killed at least 21 people. The official death toll from the fires that raged through southeastern Victoria state Feb. 7 is 181, but officials expect the tally to exceed 200.

Wildfires burn annually in places with hot summers where people live near wooded areas — Australia, California, Spain, France. Foul play is also common.

A report last month by the Australian Institute of Criminology concluded about half the 60,000 wildfires each year are either deliberately set or suspicious.

Few arrests are made, and even fewer convictions secured.

One major complication is that wildfires often merge, making it difficult to link an arson fire with the blaze that eventually kills people, said Damon Muller, who has researched arsonists for the institute.

“If someone starts a fire and that joins to another fire, how responsible is that person?” Muller said.

In such cases, prosecutors generally call in experts who examine the burn damage to determine where two blazes join and their direction, said Thomas Fee, former president of the Maryland-based International Association of Arson Investigators.

But experts for the defense could easily testify that the defendant’s fire alone wouldn’t have been enough to hurt anyone, Fee said.

Also tricky is proving that an arsonist either intended to kill someone or inflict grievous bodily harm, Muller said.

Others say it can be done.

“It’s not as difficult as you think,” said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jean Daly, who spent nine years prosecuting arson cases in California.

Under California law, arson can qualify as felony murder, which allows for a murder charge against a defendant who doesn’t intend harm.

One man, Raymond Lee Oyler, is currently on trial in California for allegedly setting a 2006 wildfire that killed five firefighters. He has pleaded not guilty to 45 counts including murder and arson and faces the death penalty if convicted.

Harder than proving a murder charge in a wildfire arson is convincing a jury the defendant committed arson in the first place, Daly said.

“You have to establish the links,” she said.

That task falls to investigators, who first hunt out eyewitnesses, said Ross Brogan, a former New South Wales state fire investigator and a fire investigation lecturer at Australia’s Charles Sturt University.

Finding the fire’s source depends on determining where it started. To do that, Brogan said, investigators interview firefighters who can detail the intensity of the flames, and study weather data to determine wind direction — both of which help investigators track the fire to its source.

The major problem is that physical evidence often burns up — or is removed by the arsonists themselves, Fee said.

“For a long number of years, they said that arson was the hardest crime to prove,” Fee said. “If you don’t have an eyewitness to this, it all becomes circumstantial evidence — and the more you try to convict on circumstantial evidence, the tougher it gets.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 1/12/2009

Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) — For nearly a decade, Kathleen Hilton has been in jail, though she’s been convicted of nothing.

Prosecutors say the grandmother set a fire that killed five people, including three young girls, because she was allegedly angry her son’s ex-girlfriend wouldn’t let him see his two kids.

Her trial is set to begin Tuesday on murder and arson charges after an extraordinary delay while her lawyer fought to keep the jury from hearing an alleged confession she made after the Feb. 24, 1999, blaze in a Lynn triple-decker.

Her grandchildren survived, but the blaze killed another family in the building.

Hilton, now 62, has spent most of the last decade at MCI-Framingham, a medium-security women’s prison where she works in the kitchen and watches television, said her attorney, Michael Natola.

In Massachusetts, it usually takes one to two years for murder cases to go to trial.

“Ten years is aberrational,” said Michael Cassidy, a professor at Boston College Law School. “Sometimes, complex murder cases can take two or three years to get to trial but 10 years is well beyond the average.”

Natola said he had to push for the statements to be suppressed — no matter how long it took. The case twice went to the Supreme Judicial Court.

“There were two competing constitutional rights at work here — her right to a speedy trial and her right to a fair trial by virtue of having unlawfully taken statements suppressed,” he said.

Ultimately, the jury at Hilton’s trial will be allowed to hear portions of her statements to police, including her claim she started the fire by pouring scented oil on the wooden stairway and lighting it with a cigarette. She allegedly said she hoped that if her son’s girlfriend, Krystina Sutherland, had nowhere to live, she and the two children would return to her son, Charles Loayza, then 22.

But jurors won’t be allowed to hear a statement she allegedly made to a court officer after her arraignment: “My son, I hope he forgives me. I could have killed my grandchildren.”

Natola claims Hilton made the statements to try to protect her son, who had threatened to burn down the house and was initially the prime suspect in the fire. Police later verified her son’s alibi for the night of the fire.

“She was trying to cover up for her son,” he said.

Natola said Hilton had a close relationship with her grandchildren.

“It makes absolutely no sense that a person who was almost obsessively concerned with her grandkids would go ahead and set the house on fire where they lived,” he said.

Sutherland and the two children escaped their second-floor apartment. The first-floor occupants also got out safely. But the five people who lived on the third floor all died of smoke inhalation.

Killed were: Heriberto Feliciano, 34; his wife, Sonia Hernandez, 32; their daughters, Sonia, 12, and Maria, 13; and their niece, Glorimar Santiago, 11. The couple had moved to the mainland United States from their native Puerto Rico about 12 years earlier. Attempts to reach relatives in Puerto Rico were unsuccessful.

Sutherland, who is now married and lives in Lynn, is expected to be a key witness for prosecutors. She did not return a call seeking comment. It is unclear whether Loayza will be called to testify. Natola said Hilton has not seen him in years and does not know where he is.

Natola said he will also argue that Hilton made the statements involuntarily. Shortly after her arrest, she was found incompetent to stand trial after she said her cell was “haunted” and she saw “spirits.” But later, psychiatrists deemed her competent, meaning she could understand the charges against her and assist her attorney with her defense.

Cassidy, the law professor, said the passage of a decade could hurt the prosecution’s case.

“The longer the time passes between the event and the trial, the more likely witnesses can get sick, die, move, come to court but have failed memories, get into trouble themselves … that’s where it’s a real risk for the government to wait this long.”

Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said the delay was unavoidable.

“We would have liked to have tried the case sooner, but we respect the process and the defendant’s rights,” he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 10/31/2008 12:35 PM

WEST FARGO, N.D. (AP) _ Authorities say a cigar appears to have started a chair on fire, damaging a West Fargo apartment and injuring the tenant.

Fire Chief Roy Schatschneider says 61-year-old Leslie Moore had been sitting in the chair in the living room smoking a cigar before the fire on Wednesday.

Moore told authorities he was in the bedroom when a smoke alarm went off. Authorities say Moore suffered minor injuries when he had to walk by the burning chair to get out of the apartment.

Schatschneider says the apartment sustained heavy smoke damage and will likely have to be stripped.


Information from: The Forum,

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

Date: 10/28/2008

Associated Press WriterFRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) _ Gov. Steve Beshear said Tuesday he has asked legal experts to determine whether new evidence warrants reopening an investigation into one of the nation’s deadliest fires, a nightclub blaze that killed 165 people more than 30 years ago.

Survivors of the 1977 fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in the northern Kentucky town of Southgate, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, claim the new evidence suggests the blaze may have been intentionally set. Investigators concluded that faulty electrical wiring ignited the fire, one of the nation’s deadliest.

David Brock, an 18-year-old busboy at the nightclub when it burned down, met with the governor’s aides last week and presented new evidence. However, he didn’t want to publicly reveal the material because he feared retribution from those implicated.

Brock has previously said he saw two suspicious men in the area of the nightclub where the fire is believed to have started. He said they were purportedly working on the air conditioning, but there was no evidence anyone had been hired to work on the system.

On Tuesday, Beshear told survivors in a letter that he asked a special prosecutor who led the original probe and two University of Kentucky law professors who were also involved to review the evidence and report back to him in the next several weeks.

“The fire was an unspeakable tragedy, and I know that the reverberations from that tragedy have continued to impact and haunt the survivors, their families and the region more than 30 years later,” Beshear said in the letter.

Brock said he was pleased with the governor’s response.

“Now, we can put the pieces of the puzzle together,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

About 30 survivors are calling for the investigation to be reopened, Brock said. He wants the probe reopened on behalf of the victims’ families.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.