I spent Sunday night on my rooftop patio peering over the wall army-style with binoculars at two suspicious looking men standing on my street corner. I was purposely wearing all black hoping they wouldn’t see me. You can call this strange behavior and maybe it was, but after what had been occurring over the previous three nights, I wasn’t taking any chances.
I am referring to the 55 fires that were set all over West Hollywood, Hollywood, North Hollywood, West Los Angeles and Burbank. I live in West Hollywood near Sunset and Fairfax which was right in the middle of where many of the fires were taking place. What should have been a joyous New Years’ Eve weekend was spoiled by a destructive man with a vicious vendetta.
I first heard about the fires on Thursday morning when my mother (visiting me) announced she had heard what sounded like gunshots the night before. Then she figured out that they were car tires popping due to the car fires taking place around the neighborhood – at this point there was suspicion of an arsonist because four fires occured that night in the West Hollywood area. I have lived in Los Angeles for seven years and I hear sirens and helicopters constantly, so noise doesn’t typically wake me up, as it didn’t that night. I just didn’t take much notice of these arson fires, and most people didn’t seem to either.
But — the next night was a different story. Another 21 fires starting around 1 a.m. were set all around the Hollywood and West Hollywood area. Helicopters lit up the sky and sirens screamed all through the night. It became blatantly clear that these fires were related and a serial arsonist was on the loose. He seemed to enjoy setting cars on fire in car ports that would then spread to the apartments above.
My roommate Kim gave him the name “Firefly.” I had a different f-word for him, but we’ll keep it clean and use Firefly. We both began to come up with possibilities for who this Firefly could be. We considered everything and everyone. One thing was clear, it could be anyone. The questions continued: who is he, how is he doing this, is it just one person and most importantly, why hasn’t anyone seen him and why can’t they catch him?
New Years Eve should have been a celebration, but our fears were too high to enjoy the evening. The sirens began at 6 p.m. just as the sun had set and nearly seven hours before the sirens had begun the previous night. He was starting early which meant he had more time to do damage before the sun came up.
We had a small party at my house and most of the guests were from the West Hollywood area. All we could talk about were the fires and the arsonist. We compared ideas as to who he might be and what his motives were and even shared a few laughs at his expense, but the tension was high in the room and throughout the city.
As midnight drew nearer my fears rose. What if the past few days were just the beginning and tonight was his grand finale? I had horrific visions of him setting up bombs all over Los Angeles and sitting on a hill somewhere just watching “the show” as it turned midnight and Los Angeles exploded and went up in flames. I relied mainly on champagne to alleviate my worries, but the biggest relief came when midnight hit and as we blew our horns and cheered, we stepped out on the patio to see a police cruiser coming down our little side street. He gave us a few Happy New Years honks and an assurance that no matter what was happening, we were being protected.
For a while we weren’t hearing any choppers or fire trucks that night and we joked that maybe he “had a party to go to,” but instead, he had moved north and was setting fires in Studio City, North Hollywood and Burbank. I felt terrible for all of the people who were beginning their 2012 by losing their car or their home. I prayed that he would be caught that night, but he wasn’t. He got away with setting at least a dozen more fires.
While I was watching the news, a local resident commented that, “this is like being in a video game that you can’t get out of.” I agreed. I felt like I was in a cop show, but it was real and even though I didn’t live in an apartment with a car port, I was surrounded by apartments that did. All it would take was a windy night and a few embers and my home could be destroyed. I began to think of what I would take if suddenly in the middle of the night we were forced to evacuate, or what if I didn’t get out or was injured or burned. I was definitely angry with this monster for all the turmoil he was causing, but mostly I was scared.
Sunday my roommate Kim and I were watching a movie. I was barely paying attention because once again the fire trucks and the helicopters were already on the move to stop the first fire of the night around 6 p.m. Every time we heard another siren we looked out the window and listened closely to see if they were coming closer or moving farther away. We kept watching twitter and saw that a fire had been set in a church and inside of an abandoned apartment building. So, it wasn’t just cars, and car ports anymore. What was next? Would he target schools, restaurants or hotels? This person or group of people was completely out of control and needed to be caught NOW!
Here’s an example of what it was like:
As we were sitting outside, two young men came racing up our street on skateboards hollering ecstatically. We went to the window and saw that they had plastic containers in their hands. Were these the arsonists? Was there a flammable liquid in those containers? I jumped out of my chair and felt my legs begin to shake as they rode down our street a second time whooping and hollering again. Was the reason they were so ecstatic because they had just set a fire? We had just heard that a fire had been set on Vista Street just a few blocks away.
We decided not to take any chances and dialed 911. Within minutes helicopters were circling and spotlighting our street and police cruisers joined in the search. They didn’t find the two individuals who were probably completely innocent and carrying bottles of water. That’s just how paranoid I had become.
Then I went up on my roof with binoculars and spied on two men who were simply standing on my street corner. More sirens went off and helicopters flew off to chase this fire starter who seemed to make himself invisible. I was trembling, sick to my stomach and couldn’t believe that this was happening. I can’t remember the last time I felt so afraid. I don’t know how I got to sleep that night, but the next morning I was hopeful when it was announced that an arrest was made.
Harry Burkhart, a man from Germany who was just 24 years old, was pulled over and detained early Monday morning. He was driving a large van with British Columbia plates and had flammable materials in his vehicle. Burkhart had been captured on a security camera a few days prior when he set fire to a car in a parking structure at Hollywood Blvd and Orange Ave. Later that day, officers were able to confirm that he was connected to the string of arson fires and we could all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that this psychotic pyromaniac had been stopped.
The most miraculous part of all of this, is that there were only two small injuries reported. No one else was hurt in any of these 55 fires that took place over just a few days, and every one made it out in time. I know this is because the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Fire Department did such an incredible job at evacuating and extinguishing the fires. I can’t thank them enough for all of their hard work late into the night to keep our city from burning down. Still there was a total of $3 million in damages. My heart goes out to all of those who lost valuable property in the last few days and hope that they are able to get back on their feet and recover quickly from these sick and twisted acts.
As for Harry Burkhart, the investigation is still ongoing. There have been some interesting facts coming out about his personal life. What they mean and how accurate they are could be anyone’s guess, but reports are saying that his mother, Dorothee Burkhart, is wanted on 19 charges of fraud, runs an adult website, and may be facing deportation back to Germany. While Burkhart sits behind bars awaiting his trial, no further fires have taken place. We can all sleep a little easier knowing that is where he is, and that this nightmare is finally over.
**Liesl Jackson is a writer/actress/comedian/pet sitter living in the heart of Hollywood. She loves the arts, animals, volunteering, traveling, and attempting to learn the acoustic guitar. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow The Pacific Punch on Twitter @ThePacificPunch.***
Liesl Jackson is a writer/actress/comedian/pet sitter living in the heart of Hollywood. She loves the arts, animals, volunteering, traveling, and attempting to learn the acoustic guitar. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter @SillyLiesl and follow The Pacific Punch @ThePacificPunch.