Arson Watch

Volunteers lend eyes in arson fight
Group keeps watch over brushy hillside areas

By Emanuel Parker
Staff Writer

            PASADENA -- Anyone seeing a vehicle with Arson Watch on its side can be forgiven for wondering, "Who are these people?"

            Armed with binoculars, cameras, portable radios, note pads and wearing distinctive blue shirts with an Arson Watch logo, they patrol the hillsides above Pasadena and Altadena with signs on the door that read "Pasadena Fire Department -- Arson Watch."

            Arson Watch is a group of 20 volunteers who act as the eyes of the fire department in brushy hillside areas whenever the weather conspires to produce conditions ripe for brush fires. The program has existed since 1995 and Crescenta Valley has a similar program.

            Volunteers use their own cars and public reaction to their presence is often mixed.

            "One person approached me and asked, 'Since when does the city buy Lexus cars for people to patrol in?' " said Allen J. Wolff of Pasadena, an Arson Watch volunteer, electrical engineer and aerospace quality assurance expert.

            Dave Bassett said he was once approached by a resident who wanted to know if he was the one who turned the resident in and caused him to get a citation for not clearing brush around his home.

            "Once people know who we are and what we do, they open their arms to us and love us," said Bassett, a carpenter for the Pasadena Unified School District.

            "We don't have any enforcement powers," Wolff said. "If we see something suspicious, we document it with the camera and take notes or call it in."

            While hard figures don't exist, Pasadena Fire Department investigator Nina Scotti said the program has helped reduce brush fires in the Pasadena-Altadena area.

            "They let people know that if they're lurking around setting fires, there's a good chance they will be seen and caught. These volunteers do an excellent job," she said.

            "Brush fires are down significantly because of citizens' awareness of them being out there," Scotti said.

            The arson watchers also save the city a bundle of money since they pay for their own equipment. The camera, portable radio, car radio, antennae and binoculars can easily add up to $2,500, Dave Bassett said.

            "The program doesn't cost the city anything," Wolff said.

            When asked by the fire department, arson watchers hit the road and patrol hillsides looking for suspicious activity, which can include abandoned cars or a vehicle spotted repeatedly in hillside areas. They work in pairs for four to five hours, and are particularly active Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day.

            "We patrol the hillside areas from Hastings Ranch west to Linda Vista and Oak Grove Park, and also into Altadena," said Kathryn Bassett, a genealogy computer consultant.

            Wolff said he's lived in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Utah and did volunteer work in each state.

            "On the East Coast the worry was hurricanes. In the Midwest it was tornadoes. In Utah, it was snow storms. Out here it's earthquakes and brush fires."