The Bethel Police and Fire Departments are teaming up to battle arson. They’ve created the Bethel Arson Investigative Task Force, aimed at figuring out what or who caused fires in Bethel, and prosecuting arsonists if they are found.
Acting Fire Chief Daron Solesbee says that he came up with the idea for an arson task force after several large fires destroyed buildings in Bethel a few years ago and investigators were unable to determine the cause.
“The Kilbuck School fire, that was one of my big pushes to do this,” Solesbee said.
Acting Police Chief Amy Davis says that the number of unsolved fires in Bethel is declining. She reported that the department made more arrests for arson this last year than in the past, and she says that’s due to one change.
“Well, we actually have an arson investigator, and in years past we haven’t,” Davis said. “We actually have someone that can tell us cause, and that helps us as far as charging someone.”
Acting Fire Chief Solesbee received his Fire Investigator certification in 2018. This certification not only helps him determine the cause of fires, but it lends more weight to his findings when they are used as evidence.
“If we can get trained to that level where it’s a standardized level and it’s a certified level here in the state of Alaska, then it will hold up better in court,” Solesbee said.
Solesbee is currently the only certified fire investigator in Bethel. He says that training and certifying more fire investigators will be one of two goals for the task force. The other will be creating procedures to better coordinate between the fire and the police departments.
Right now, when a fire occurs in Bethel, Solesbee, as the only fire investigator, determines the cause of the fire. Police officers collect the evidence. Then the two departments team up to interview witnesses and suspects, and police make an arrest if there is evidence of arson. Solesbee says that the whole process could be tidier.
“It’s a lot of phone calls,” Solesbee said. “And setting up meetings. If we just had a better method set up where we all get called in, and we have the briefing, and we basically come up with goals and delegation of tasks, then it’ll be better for the community as a whole.”
Solesbee says that he and Davis are working on a playbook that task force members can follow when a fire occurs. Davis is also excited about working more closely with the fire department.
“One thing that I’ve learned in this job is that we shouldn’t work in silos,” Davis said. “Teams are a much better approach to working investigations.
In April, a few police officers will accompany Solesbee to Fire Investigator Training, where they hope to get certified as well. Solesbee says that he plans to have the first version of the Bethel Arson Investigative Task Force running by the end of this year.