Neighbors nervous after fires rip through historic St. Augustine

By Ashley Harding, General assignment reporter, aharding@wjxt.com
Francine Frazier, Web news editor, ffrazier@wjxt.com
Published On: Aug 06 2014 09:04:12 AM EDT
Updated On: Jun 23 2014 11:45:00 PM EDT

VIDEO: Police are looking for answers to what they believe are four related fires in St. Augustine. Police say they are keeping a close eye on the area to make sure the community feels safe.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -

After four historic buildings were heavily damaged by fire in St. Augustine, and three of those fires were ruled arson by investigators, many in the neighborhood were feeling anxious Monday night.

The next step in the investigation comes at 9 a.m. Tuesday, when fire officials, police and several other agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, will meet to compare notes as they attempt to identify the alleged arsonist.

A surveillance video released by authorities shows a man in the upper right corner, close to the area on Cordova Street where investigators said two buildings were intentionally set on fire. Less than a mile away, a home on Saragossa Street also went up in flames, and a house on Park Place burned to the ground.

Fire officials are still determining if the building on Park Place (pictured below), which has the most noticeable damage, was intentionally set on fire like the other three buildings were.

IMAGES: 4 fires within 1 mile
LISTEN: 911 calls | Officials' radio traffic

Pete Smith used to live next door.

"There's enough weird people in this country as it is,” Smith said. “Trying to figure out one nutcase with a match, I dunno."

Several neighbors close to the fires said there's already a good police presence in the area. So the fact that an arsonist would feel confident enough to start a fire really baffles them.

FIRE MARSHAL: 4 St. Augustine fires suspicious "I don't know if the person was scanning the neighborhoods or what they were doing,” said Vicki Sargent, a nearby resident. “So that does worry me."

Carol Lopez-Bradshaw is a key holder to the home on Saragossa Street (pictured below) that officials said was burned by an arsonist. She said she's been in contact with the homeowners, who live there part time, and said they're shaken up but they're glad no one was hurt.

"They were very pleased at the way it was handled," Lopez-Bradshaw said. "They were pleased that, you know, nobody -- the house was in good shape."

Other than some damage to the side of the building, the only visible sign of a major fire was a burned couch cushion on the front lawn.

FIRE MARSHAL: 4 St. Augustine fires suspicious Lopez-Bradshaw said one of her neighbors, who was walking a dog, was the one who called firefighters.

"They saw the flames coming out from underneath the house,” she said. “They called the fire department. If it had been 30 minutes later, it would have been a whole different ballgame."

Lopez-Bradshaw said her background is in fire prevention with the county, and she said she was given the task of opening the home's windows once the fire was put out.

She said she understands the concern some of her neighbors were feeling Monday night.
 
"We have quite a few people who live around here all the time around the block,” Lopez-Bradshaw said. “So we know who comes and goes. But whoever it was is a person who, they get a thrill out of seeing a fire."

St. Augustine Fire Marshal Capt. Bob Growick said he understands the concern many are feeling in the area. Without going into specifics, he wants neighbors to know that the police and city leaders are keeping an eye out.

"They're going to be out here, and they're going to be doing some things to help the community,” Growick said. “We want them to understand, the citizens who live here, plus the people who come here that we serve, we want them to know they're still safe in this city."

Neighbors said they are being careful. Growick said people need to pay attention to who is in their neighborhoods. They need to keep an eye on people they don't recognize, and if they see something they don't like, they need to call police right away.

In the meantime, authorities hope someone knows the identity of the man seen on surveillance footage.

"We just want to ask him some questions,” Growick said. “Maybe he can give us some answers to help us with the investigation."

Anyone with any information about the fires is asked to call 877-NO-ARSON (662-7766) or Crime Stoppers at 888-277-8477. Callers can remain anonymous and could be eligible for a cash reward.

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