Officials stress commitment to investigating fires in Ward 3

Officials look to reassure Ward 3 residents of vigilance

  • Laurie Loisel, who is the director of community outreach and education for the Northwestern District Attorney's Office, speaks during a meeting Monday at Northampton City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Susan McEvoy asks a question during a meeting Monday at Northampton City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Northampton War 3 City Councilor Ryan O'Donnell speaks during a meeting Monday at Northampton City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Jim Nash, left, asks a question during a meeting Monday at Northampton City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper fields a question during a meeting Monday at Northampton City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. Beside her is Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan O'Donnell. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Nancy Mihevc, left, asks a question during a meeting Monday at Northampton City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Fred Zimnoch, front, asks a question as Laurie Loisel, left, who is the director of community outreach and education for the Northwestern District Attorney's Office, Northwestern Assistant District Attorney Matthew Thomas, Northampton Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan O'Donnell, Police Chief Jody Kasper and Fire Chief Duane Nichols listen during a meeting Monday at City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Northwestern Assistant District Attorney Matthew Thomas speaks during a meeting Monday at Northampton City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. Laurie Loisel, background, is the director of community outreach and education for the DA. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Northampton Fire Chief Duane Nichols answers a question during a meeting Monday at Northampton City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. JERREY ROBERTS

@cmlindahl
Published: 4/4/2016 11:11:49 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Public safety officials assured concerned Ward 3 residents Monday evening that they are being diligent in their investigation of the recent string of suspicious fires in the neighborhood.

Meantime, Fire Chief Duane Nichols, Police Chief Jody Kasper and staff from the Northwestern district attorney’s office urged those who live in the area to keep watch and report anything that seems suspicious.

“We really look to you as the people who know what’s going on in your neighborhood,” Nichols said at the gathering attended by some 30 people. “You can be our eyes out there.”

Officials are actively investigating six fires deemed suspicious that occurred between March 12 and 21 in the North Street area.

Three incidents involved clumps of ornamental grasses that had been burned at houses in the neighborhood. In another nearby incident, a man living in a tent between the railroad tracks and King Street reported that his tent and belongings inside had been burned. And in another incident, someone reported that the contents of a barrel had been lit on fire outside 137 King St.

Most recently, a report came in Friday that holes had been burned into the lining of a fence at a construction site on Bates Street, though Kasper said the damage was caused during the same time as the other five fires. The investigation continues by the Northampton police and fire departments, the DA’s office and the state fire marshal’s office.

“There’s a real team approach to fire investigation in the city,” Nichols said.

Assigned to fire investigations in Northampton are three firefighters and two police officers. Local officials may also call on three people from the state fire marshal’s office when needed, and Nichols said the Fire Department consults the marshal’s office when investigating any and all fires.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Thomas is also part of theinvestigation. Thomas was one of the prosecutors assigned to the Anthony Baye case — and memory of those fires has led many in Ward 3 to be on high alert.

Baye was convicted of setting several fires in the area, including one during an arson spree Dec. 27, 2009, that claimed two lives.

Day Avenue resident Nancy Mihevc, who lived in Ward 3 during the Baye fires and also had her former King Street house set ablaze in 1991, asked how officials can ramp up response if there ever is an arson spree again.

Nichols said there’s a system in place to call in firefighters from surrounding communities if there are ever more than 10 alarms — as there were during the 2009 spree.

“I never thought I would see that in my career,” he said. But the system worked then and “we’re prepared,” he added.

And Kasper said she can call in the next shift of police officers if there is a need.

Another resident asked what officials are doing differently in light of the Baye fires.

Nichols said when he and Kasper first met to discuss the string of recent fires, they both decided it was best to alert the public early. And they quickly brought on the DA’s office.

“I think that’s what we learned from the Baye case — lets put the resources to it early,” Nichols said.

Kasper and Nichols said they cannot yet say for certain if the recent fires are connected because the investigation is still in progress. “We don’t know and we don’t want to guess,” Kasper said.

Susan McEvoy asked Kasper how concerned she was about the fires.

Kasper noted that there have been no fires since March 21. “We haven’t had any since then, so certainly that does provide some sense of relief,” she said.

But Kasper later noted that relief does not translate into relaxing the investigation. “Just because there’s been a gap (without fires) doesn’t mean we’re any less diligent,” she said. “We talk about it almost every day.”

But Kasper’s assurance did not quell the fears of some residents, including Fred Zimnoch of Pomeroy Terrace.

He wanted specifics about the investigation. “Give us some confidence that you guys are really investigating,” he said. He wanted proof of the number of hours officers and firefighters are working on the cases.

Because the investigation is ongoing, Kasper said she could not get into specifics. But she said investigators follow up with any tips submitted by residents and that there are officers assigned specifically to the fires.

Another man, who declined to give his name to the Gazette, said he was not satisfied by the level of communication by officials. He said he wanted mailers to be sent to residents and police officers to knock on doors, even to just “instill confidence” in residents.

Kasper said that press releases would be sent when there are any updates and Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan O’Donnell would be told about any developments.

Several people also asked if the city would consider using its CodeRED emergency phone alert system to inform the public about the fires. Kasper said there are protocols for using the system, such as when there is a life-threatening event.

Mihevc, though, said she is satisfied with the level of communication about the fires, which includes signs posted on telephone poles, a press release and the Monday meeting.

“I feel much better informed than in ’91, or 2007, or any of the other times,” she said.

The police and fire departments can be contacted by calling the dispatch center at 587-1100.

And anonymous tips can be sent via text to 274637 with the word “PROTECT” and information about the tip in the message field. The service should not be used for tips about emergencies. In an emergency, call 911.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.




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