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Bainbridge police say stay vigilant in wake of recent fires

Police are advising downtown business owners and shoppers to watch for any suspicious activities, specifically around dumpsters or loading docks in the wake of a fire in the storage area near Paper Products Etc. earlier this month.

“The biggest thing is to keep an eye out for someone lingering in an area who shouldn’t be there,” said Bainbridge Police Lt. Phil Hawkins.

Downtown businesses are assisting in the effort to catch the person or persons who set the fire by contributing to a potential reward for information leading to the arrest of a perpetrator.

Police are calling the fire, which was set when a broom was ignited just after midnight on May 8, an arson. Police said the random nature of the crime makes the need to catch whomever is responsible all the more urgent.

“There’s not a lot we can do with arson; it’s a hideous thing, and we’re all so vulnerable to it,” Hawkins said.

An employee at Westside Pizza smelled smoke the night of the fire and was able to put it out before it spread to the Winslow Mall.

“If that had started up, it could have wiped out that entire mall and created a huge fire there,” said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Dwyer.

Joanna McLeod, owner of Paper Products Etc., said this week that the fire caused minimal damage, thanks to the quick response. The lasting mark is a charred wall, but everything else is able to be cleaned up. McLeod said said the store’s employees are extremely careful with what they put in the shed, but there’s only so much one can do.

“We’re pretty good about getting rid of everything back there, but people can pretty much light on fire what they want,” McLeod said.

Despite the potential for high damage to the shopping center, Dwyer said he hasn’t heard much concern from nearby business owners about the fire, and whether another could happen. A survey of a number of businesses on Winslow Way this week confirmed that.

But McLeod is worried about the lasting lesson of the fire, that downtown is often deserted at night, making it a low priority for police patrols, leading to easy access for criminals. The presence of the Westside Pizza employee was an important break for the store.

“We got lucky, there just happened to be someone at the pizza place upstairs,” she said. “If he hadn’t seen it, who knows how the fire would have progressed before someone reported it.”

The fire was the fourth at a business since the beginning of March, when three fires occurred in a two-week period. The first, a fire in a dumpster at the Safeway on High School Road, was set March 11. Several days later, police said, someone broke into a locked dumpster and started a fire at 123 Bjune Drive. A third fire occurred on March 24, when a load of burning compressed cardboard was found by an employee at the same Safeway. That fire was the smallest of all; it was extinguished by several individuals’ drinks.

Police said they do not believe the fires from March and the incident at Paper Products Etc. are connected.

“We’ve not really developed a case on any one or group of people yet,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said no pattern has emerged among the fires either. They happened in different times of the day and were started in different ways.

Police emphasized the need for assistance from the public, given the unpredictable nature of the recent fires.

“The ugly part of arson is it puts everyone at risk, and we’re so vulnerable to it,” Hawkins said. “We really hope someone will step forward to help us find this suspect because it’s potentially a very tragic crime.”

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