Dramatic drop in Fresno fires since arsonists arrested

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A major change for the better in several Fresno neighborhoods plagued over the summer by serial arsonists.

"People have been really relieved that these fires are no longer a danger to the neighborhood," said Sergio Cortes of the Lowell Neighborhood Association, one of several communities to deal with the arsons.

Fresno fire investigators blame serial arsonists for nearly 200 fires over the summer. Firefighters battled more than 40 arson fires every month between May and July. But since a series of arrests, that number is down to 12 this month.

As spot fires ignited at old businesses, along freeways and even under Fresno police cruisers, firefighters closed in on serial arson suspects one by one. In the Lowell neighborhood, homeowners reported at least seven fires, mostly in alleyways and vacant houses.

"There were a few close calls in the neighborhood where some of the houses were almost jeopardized," said Cortes.

Neighbors spotted Michael Van Valkenburg walking away from many of the fires and started taking pictures. Investigators arrested him, and suddenly everything changed.

"Ever since he's been locked up, there's no more incidences, no more fires, in our area at least," said Cortes.

The next month, fires in Southeast Fresno slowed down. Investigators arrested 28-year-old Ruben Ochoa for setting fire to a home. He's facing four counts of arson and prosecutors expect to charge him with several more next week. Investigators blame Ochoa for dozens of fires, and they almost stopped his spree months earlier.

"I had contact with him early on but did not have enough evidence at that time," said deputy fire marshal Don MacAlpine, the chief investigator for the Fresno Fire Department. "And then eventually witnesses started to come forward and help out."

Raul Reyes, Jr., Tad Moore and James Moore are also accused of playing roles in the outburst of arsons. Firefighters arrested James Moore in August for starting a fire at the Neighborhood Thrift Store in the Tower District. He's also suspected of burning a trail all the way there from southern California.

"That's a serious fellow," said MacAlpine. "L.A. was after him, Cal-Fire was after him and we just got fortunate here."

Moore was sentenced to six years in prison last month. Reyes will be sentenced to prison Friday. The other men are still in the court system.

Investigators don't believe they caught every arsonist, but whether they've been caught or gone underground, the firestarters seem dormant.

"The facts are, we've brought that serial incident to just about a screeching halt," said MacAlpine.

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