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String of arsons causes unease in Somerville

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

‘Everybody was scared. All we saw was smoke,” said Happy Singh, 23, describing the fire in the adjacent apartment at his family’s home on Lake Street in Somerville in July.

SOMERVILLE — As she looked across her small fenceless yard, Toni Gleason was feeling uneasy Sunday. In the past few months, her neighborhood has been beset by a rash of house fires, including some that authorities say were arson.

“My yard is open,’’ said Gleason. “Anybody can come through the yard and set something on fire.”

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Fear has been spreading through Somerville since June 27, when the Fire Department began responding to the first of 13 blazes, most of them in the early mornings. The most recent happened Friday on Laurel Terrace and was immediately deemed arson, fire officials said.

Three other fires were ruled arson, and fire authorities say they are investigating five other suspicious blazes. Another four have been ruled accidental.

Some of the fires may have been set by someone gaining access to homes through basements, fire and city officials said. Other fires were set outside homes.

Deputy Chief William Lee, of the Somerville Fire Department, said that as of Sunday no arrests had been made. He asked the public to remain calm and urged them to be vigilant about reporting suspicious activities, such as someone lurking in a yard at odd hours of the day.

“The police and fire departments have been working diligently with this investigation, and they are confident they will find a solution to this,’’ Lee said.

‘Everybody was scared. All we saw was smoke.’

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Some of the fires — on Bromfield Road and Walnut and Lake streets —occurred within about a mile from each other. They caused extensive damage and displaced at least seven families. No one has been hurt in any of the fires.

Residents said they are now keeping lights on outside at night and removing anything potentially flammable from their yards. Some say they are jumpy, peeking out their windows at the slightest sounds and or when they think they smell a whiff of smoke.

“Everybody in Somerville is talking about it, and everybody I have been talking to is very concerned about the fires because it could happen at any time. And it is happening too frequently,’’ said Theresa Fabiano, who lives on Walnut Street next door to the site of a fire that displaced six households.

Carole Bottari, another Somerville resident, said the thought that an arsonist could strike at any time is particularly concerning.

“Naturally we are worried,” said Bottari. “Hopefully, they will catch this maniac. It’s houses now, but next time it could be someone’s life.”

Nabil Chalbi, who shares a condo with his mother and two brothers on Walnut Street, said he was not home when the blaze began in the basement of the six-unit building on June 27.

He said his mother smelled the smoke and alerted her two sons. As they tried to flee from the third floor, smoke choked the back stairway. They were finally able to get out through the front.

“I lost everything,’’ said Chalbi, who said he is now living in an apartment in Arlington.

The building on Walnut Street is empty and boarded up. Chalbi said fire investigators said they could not determine what caused the blaze, which started in the basement. But now he wonders if the blaze was the work on an arsonist.

“Besides the people who live there, no one else has access to the building,’’ he said. “That’s what makes me wonder: What happened here?”

On Laurel Terrace, the occupant of the home hit by the latest arson said she has never seen anything quite like this in her three decades in the city.

The homeowner, who spoke on condition her name not be used to protect her privacy, described waking up around 6:20 a.m. Friday and soon smelling something burning, like plastic. She looked outside and saw smoke coming from a back porch below her second-floor apartment. She ran downstairs and tried to open the back door but was pushed back by flames. She ran back up and out the front door, where she saw fire burning in several spots on the porch. As she called 911, she grabbed the garden hose and extinguished most of the blaze.

“I couldn’t believe it was arson,” she said. “I had been reading about it in the news, but of course I did not think it was going to happen at my home.”

Not far away on Lake Street, 23-year-old Happy Singh stood in his doorway and described the morning of July 19, when a fire broke out in the adjacent apartment. He’d slept through most of it, but his father woke him up around 5:30 a.m., telling him to get out.

“Everybody was scared,” he said. “All we saw was smoke.”

Somerville authorities said they are aggressively pursuing a number of leads and are working with state and federal agencies in the investigation. They’ve beefed up regular police patrols, set up a tip hot line, and increased the reward to $20,000 for any information leading to the arrest and prosecution of an arsonist.

The reward could rise to $25,000 because the Arson Watch Reward Program is offering up to an additional $5,000 for any information leading to the arrest of any person involved in setting these fires.

Authorities have also listed a number of arson prevention tips, including locking all windows and doors and removing from porches easily flammable items such as upholstered furniture or yard waste.

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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