Arsonist Suspected In 23 Fires In Washington State

By Victoria Cavaliere

SEATTLE, Sept 29 (Reuters) - A suspected arsonist operating in Washington state is believed to have ignited nearly two dozen fires in three weeks, destroying two homes and burning parched grassland amid a destructive wildfire season, officials said on Monday.

The 23 fires set since Sept. 9 outside Spokane, Washington's second-largest city, have been mostly confined to the same area of south Spokane County, home to more than 20,000 people in eastern Washington, authorities said.

"We are pretty convinced it's the same person setting these fires," said Assistant Fire Chief Greg Godfrey of Spokane County Fire District 8. "There's a very distinct pattern."

Four blazes were set between Friday and early Monday, and about a dozen have been ignited near a well-populated neighborhood, he said.

"That's our biggest concern, that one of these blazes in what we call an urban interface area will get some wind behind it ... and we are still very dry here. We can have a really dangerous situation on our hands," he said.

Washington state, with drought conditions in many areas, has endured one of its most destructive wildfire seasons on record, with more than 550 square miles of wilderness charred by early September and hundreds of homes destroyed, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Burn bans are in effect through much of the state until October, which usually marks the end of the wildfire season.

The suspected arsonist has also burned down two unoccupied model homes, causing about $700,000 in damage, Godfrey said. A task force has been formed to try to narrow in on a suspect but no description was available yet, he said.

Godfrey said battling the blazes, sometimes two per day, was costing thousands of dollars in resources, including manpower and fire suppression tools.

Felony arson charges in Washington state can carry from 3 months to life in prison. (Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Jim Loney)