Explosive apparent arson adds to overflowing caseload for Fresno fire investigators

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Tuesday, June 8, 2021
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Video shows an explosion, a fire, and someone leaving the scene near Minnewawa and Highway 180 early Sunday morning.

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- An explosive scene along Highway 180 this weekend highlights a tough task for Fresno fire investigators.

Even with surveillance video clearly showing the explosion, the fire, and someone leaving the scene, fire investigators say it'll be a hard case to crack.

A brief blast lit up the night in video from a home security camera near Minnewawa and Highway 180 early Sunday morning.

A fire followed in the dried grass at the top of the hill abutting the freeway.

In the daylight, it's clear the fire didn't spread far from the bushy area where it started.

What's not clear is who did it or how.

Fire investigators have analyzed the video looking for clues, including the person shown moving away moments after the explosion.

"You have about two seconds of someone squirting away," said Deputy Fire Marshal Jay Tracy, a fire investigator with the Fresno Fire Department. "It looks like maybe on foot or on a bike. Obviously can't even identify whether it's a male or a female let alone any descriptors we could follow up on."

Neighbors tell Action News they're thankful firefighters got there and put out the fire in a matter of minutes.

They're concerned about people experiencing homelessness and living in a small encampment between Minnewawa and Clovis.

Although the city has moved most people living along highways into sheltered housing, small pockets of people have reappeared.

Fire investigators say they believe unsheltered people may be responsible for a majority of the fires in Fresno.

About 10% of fires get assigned to one of the department's six investigators - usually when the damage is major, someone is injured or killed, or when there's a strong trail of evidence to follow.

So far in 2021, Fresno firefighters have responded to about 3,100 fires - a record pace for them and the investigators.

"It's wearing our guys thin," Tracy said. "You know, it's wearing them out. With that, we look into these incidents. We don't take them lightly."

The department recently applied for a grant to get 42 extra firefighters and they're planning to add some other positions too.

Investigators say they hope that means they'll get more eyes to solve potential crimes like this one.