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Fire Officials Withheld Information in Rash of Suspicious Fires

March 21, 1987

SEATTLE (AP) _ Nearly three dozen unsolved fires, including one that killed two people, have been reported in northeast Seattle since the beginning of the year, but officials say they kept quiet in order not to panic residents.

″We didn’t want to create hysteria out there,″ Fire Chief Claude Harris said Friday.

The fires were disclosed in a copyright story in Friday’s editions of The Seattle Times, which said it had reviewed emergency fire calls received since January.

Harris said the 33 fires have been classified as either arson or suspicious. ″Suspicious″ doesn’t necessarily mean arson, he noted. It simply means firefighters at the scene weren’t able to determine a cause.

Another consideration in not publicizing the fires, the chief said, was that authorities did not want ″to chase the (arsonist) back into the woodwork; we want to catch the person.″

He declined to say how long an arsonist has been at work in the area.

The blazes included 13 that caused damage to buildings, 17 in trash or brush, and three in automobiles.

Investigations into the fires have resulted in one arrest and a referral to the juvenile justice system, Harris said.

The Times said it learned that as many as 50 suspicious fires in northeastern Seattle have been or are under investigation.

Citywide this year, 153 fires have been classified as either arson or suspicious, he said.

The March 6 fire that killed Monte and Gladys McCaughey in their home was one of four that started in carports within a few blocks of one another and within about an hour’s time.

Other suspicious blazes, however, occurred in other neighborhoods and happened at all times of the day or night, Harris said.

Some residents say they’re fearful, and at least one said she thinks the fire department should have been more open about the suspicious fires.

″I feel kind of mad about the fact that we weren’t notified,″ said Marilyn Sherman, whose home was one of the four hit by arson on March 6. Her garage was destroyed.

″I think if I had known there were people running around setting fires, I would have closed the garage door. I also would have left the lights on,″ she said.

But city officials, including Mayor Charles Royer and City Councilman Norm Rice, said the fire department had handled the situation appropriately and had kept officials adequately informed.

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