The fire season thus far in California has proved to be particularly active, with 1500 fires to this point, but residents of affected areas, such as residents of the San Diego area, have been victimized by looters as well as by fire. The most recent fires in the region lasted for most of the past week, as they started on Tuesday and are only just now being fully extinguished by fire fighting forces. These fires destroyed 11 houses, an apartment building, left at least one person dead, and led to tens of thousands of residents being evacuated from their homes in the San Diego area. Furthermore, although the fires effected an area of over 9,000 acres, many evacuees were victimized by looters as well as by mother nature.
A perfect example of looters victimizing evacuees can be found in the case of Brandon Gunn, a 29-year-old who was arrested on suspicion of looting. Gunn was found by police in a west Escondido neighborhood, parked outside of an evacuated house. Upon questioning Mr. Gunn, police discovered that he had no legitimate business in the area, which then led them to discover that he had a criminal record, including a conviction for theft, and an outstanding warrant.
While Gunn has not yet been convicted, and may in fact be innocent, it is certainly worrying that evacuated residences are so easily accessible to criminals. This phenomenon, in which San Diego residents are mercilessly victimized by looters, is largely attributable to the fact that, despite their best efforts, the San Diego police do not have enough manpower to protect all evacuated residences. The severity of this manpower shortage can be seen from the fact that the San Diego police department was only able to assign 25 police to patrol the evacuated region of Escondido, a tiny number when the massive size of the evacuation is taken into consideration.
Looting, however, is not the only way in which San Diego residents are being victimized, as arsonists are also taking advantage of the situation to practice their craft. For example, 19-year-old Isaiah David Silva and an unidentified 17-year-old male were arrested by police on Thursday, May 15, after reportedly starting a pair of small fires.Similarly, Alberto Serrato was arrested by police after two witnesses saw him adding fuel to an existing fire in the San Luis Rey river bed, a charge which Serrato has strenuously denied.
The profound impact that these crimes have had on evacuees has caused governmental and judicial officials in the region to take an uncompromising stance on the issue. An important example of this is District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who has said that anything taken from an evacuated zone would constitute a felony, which comes with a penalty of up to three years in prison. Furthermore, anyone convicted of crimes during this time period faces additional years in state prison due to the fact that the crimes were committed during a ‘state of emergency,’ which covers all evacuation zones. These measures show the government’s determination to try to minimize the victimization of San Diego residents by looters and arsonists, but the sheer number of such individuals makes this a very difficult goal to achieve.
By Nicholas Grabe