GARY — Authorities said Tuesday the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would assist the Gary police and fire departments with their investigation into two recent rashes of suspicious fires.
Firefighters from Gary and departments in Lake and Porter County worked feverishly Saturday night into early Sunday to extinguish blazes at 17 vacant buildings in 11 different locations, mostly in the Midtown and downtown areas, Fire Chief Sean O'Donnell said.
Some of the residential structures were fully engulfed when firefighters arrived, he said.
No injuries were reported among residents or firefighters, and O'Donnell said Tuesday he wasn't aware of any neighboring structures being evacuated.
Gary Mayor Jerome Prince said the city's fire and police departments immediately began an investigation and it became clear the city needed to seek all the resources it could to bring anyone responsible to justice.
A previous rash of seven fires April 21 also was considered suspicious and will be investigated, he said.
ATF Special Assistant Agent in Charge Brendan Iber said his agents are trained to investigate arson and would help Gary officials determine the cause and origin of each fire.
O'Donnell said the fires are all considered suspicious, but they're currently being viewed as separate incidents.
"To the public, it may appear that these fires could be the result of foul play. We understand that," O'Donnell said. "This isn't a television show or movie where we will quickly be able to connect the dots and determine who done it. This will take time and extensive effort from our team of investigators, and we hope to come to a conclusion based on the facts gathered during the investigative process."
Police Chief Brian Evans said high winds Saturday night contributed to the fires' growth, and officials were grateful the blazes didn't spread further.
"An arson is a crime," he said. "And it's one that can cause a great deal of damage, not only to the surrounding community, but it jeopardizes the lives of the men and women of the Fire Department as well as our citizens."
Authorities are forming a team of fire investigators, crime scene detectives and others to try to determine if the blazes are connected, he said.
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said arson can carry a possible penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
If the fires are determined to be arson, his office is committed to bringing those responsible to justice, he said.
"We will seek the highest penalty under state law," Carter said.
City Councilman Ronald Brewer said he arrived at one scene about 11 p.m. Saturday and watched as two homes went up in flames before fire equipment was available. He notified Prince, who was already of aware of the situation, and firefighters eventually arrived in response to a call for mutual aid.
The effort to extinguish the many blazes drained the city's already strained resources, he said.
"I also want to ask the public ... if you see something, say something," Brewer said. "Please be more vigilant."
If residents see any suspicious vehicles, they should take down a license plate number in case it's needed later, he said.
City Council President William Godwin said the fires have prompted the council to take a hard look at where the city is committing its resources, so it can ensure the city are adequately protected.
Prince said he believed many of the now-burned-out buildings were likely already slated for demolition, but those involved in the fires likely will be elevated in priority. He expected they would be demolished "in short order," he said.
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