Arson up in city; boys charged in school playground fire

Tegan Hanlon

Arson cases have spiked this year in Anchorage, and the fire department's one investigator on Wednesday asked for the public's help with recent unsolved fires as he strategically balances more than 80 cases.

But right before Investigator Brian Balega went in front of news media cameras to discuss suspected arsons, including a recent school playground fire, he received word of two arrests.

Police had charged two seventh-grade boys in connection with Friday's fire at the College Gate Elementary playground in East Anchorage. The boys, 13 and 14 years old, face arson and criminal mischief charges and have been released to their parents, according to police spokeswoman Jennifer Castro.

A student helped identify the suspects. The fire is estimated to have caused about $30,000 in damage, police said.

"That's one investigation I can take off my plate and make room for another one," Balega said.

Eighty-seven cases considered suspicious currently crowd his plate when you account for the investigations that have spilled over from prior years. Since January, the investigator has taken 58 new cases considered suspicious. That's already 18 more than last year and five up from all of 2011.

Each case must be investigated and the cause of the fire labeled as incendiary (or intentionally set), accidental or undetermined.

Of the 58 cases this year, Balega has determined 40 to be incendiary, 10 accidental and eight undetermined. In 2012, 25 of the 40 reported cases were suspected arson. The year before, the suspected arson total was 28 out of the total 53.

"I can tell you my work is doubling," Balega said.

When Balega was hired in 2008 there were two investigators. At one point in the mid-1980s there were four people employed with his job description, he said. Since 2009, Balega has managed the cases alone.

"I do the best that I can," he said.

This year Balega has not only noted an increase in total cases, but also "the most commercial arsons I've ever seen," he said.

There was the case of the Sugar Shack espresso stand on Lake Otis Parkway that was ransacked and torched in May. Balega said he has a "good lead."

That same month a fire was set at Sunrise Grill & Pancake House on Old Seward Highway. Balega said an accelerant was present on scene, but no suspects have been identified.

Earlier this month, someone stole beer from Serrano's Mexican Grill on East Northern Lights before starting a fire in a desk cabinet. Balega said he's working two potential suspects.

"Hopefully we can wrap it up," he said.

Then, Cash Alaska, a Mountain View business, sustained roof damage after a fire on Oct. 23. Balega has asked around the neighborhood for help identifying a female witness, but so far, no leads.

Only two days later, the elementary school playground was set on fire for the second time since the summer.

Among the commercial arsons, Balega said a link hasn't been identified.

The only connections have been among the five wildfires in Russian Jack Springs Park on Aug. 5. In that case, a suspicious person described as a male in his 30s with blond hair has not been found. There have been four suspects identified, he said.

There's also still the case of the 2012 fire at the First Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Midtown that left the building without a roof. That's a criminal case and is "waiting to be worked," Balega said.

Balega said that he tries to work between one and five investigations each day. He canvasses neighborhoods, files reports and fields crime tips.

"If you ask somebody like myself to do the job of four people and you only got one doing it," Balega said, "the reality is, how much can that one person really do?"

Anyone with information on any recent or unsolved fires should call Crime Stoppers at 907-561-STOP or the Arson Hot Line at 907-267-5060.

Reporter Benjamin Brasch contributed to this report. Reach Tegan Hanlon at or 257-4589. Twitter: