Authorities in Berkeley say they are concerned about 55 suspicious fires in recent months that appear to have been set intentionally, and may be tied to a “firebug.”

Officials say they have not categorized the incidents as arson, because that requires a specific intent that is unknown at this time. For now, the city is calling the fires “suspicious circumstances.” The 55 incidents took place from Nov. 1 through Jan. 2. Over the same period last year, there were only 12 suspicious fires.

None of the fires have caused injuries or significant property damage, but officials say they want to document the incidents in case the activity escalates.

“If someone is getting away with it, they tend to graduate to other things,” said Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief Keith May this week. “That’s what we really want to avoid.”

May said Tuesday that items set on fire have included a dumpster on Ellis Street, a portable restroom, a chair and a bike, items of clothing and leaves. Other items set on fire have included “boxes, mattresses, trash or the contents of a garbage bin,” according to the city.

Only one incident, the dumpster fire, caused minor property damage when it spread to a nearby balcony. Most of the items set aflame have been well away from any structures, May said.

Many of the fires have been small enough to go out on their own, or require just a single-engine response. But May said, if the wind picks up, or if burning items are near structures, it could be a different story.

The Fire Department has listed four neighborhoods as “areas of particular concern”: Shattuck Avenue between Rose Street and Marin Circle; Martin Luther King Jr. Way from the Ashby BART station to the Oakland border; Russell Street south of San Pablo Park; and Dwight Way west of Eighth Street.

Authorities have asked community members to take steps to limit the potential for intentional fires. Those include cleaning up debris outside, bringing in garbage cans after pick-up times, and calling 911 to report suspicious activity.

May said this type of fire activity is a rare occurrence in Berkeley. And he said it’s important to track the incidents so fire investigators and police can look for trends in time, location and other factors.

“Anytime we notice a trend, we have to pay a lot closer attention to it,” he said.

The Berkeley Fire Department asks anyone with information about the fires to call the city’s dispatch center at 510-981-5900.

BFD plans to update its map of suspicious fires on the city website.

Avatar photo

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...