Recent Marin fires shine a light on California’s increasing problem with arson

Taylor Elliott

“I just felt so helpless because there was nothing I could do. When I left, [the fire] was so close to our house that I thought it would burn [it] down. [I feared] we were going to come back, and our house would be gone,” junior Lola Zirpoli said.

On June 13, an arsonist attacked Zirpoli’s home in Larkspur. She recalls waking up around 5:30 a.m. to the sound of her father screaming.

“I sat up from my bed, and there were flames in my window. I panicked and ran to my parent’s room where my dad was on the phone with 911,” Zirpoli said.

After alerting her sister of the fire and moving outside, she realized the magnitude of the situation. 

“The wind picked up, causing the fire to jump over 10 feet in a few seconds. It was extremely close, maybe 15 feet from our house,” Zirpoli said.

Marin County firefighters were able to put out the flames before they reached Zirpoli’s home, and the arsonist responsible for the attack was caught and served a few weeks in prison before being released due to COVID-19 exposure concerns. He is currently living in Bolinas, and although his motive is still unclear, he has a history of setting small fires. Zirpoli says the situation has emotionally scarred her family.

“Our family is still scared, and we all find it hard to sleep at night because we’re worried about more arsons,” Zirpoli said.

This fear is, unfortunately, not unfounded. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that the number of arson offenses in the West was 28% higher in the first six months of 2020 than in the same months of 2019. In Marin County, arson numbers are also increasing. The Novato Police Department (NPD) announced that the number of reported arson offenses had increased threefold between 2017 and 2018. In 2020 so far, the NPD has responded to 12 arsons, which is already more than the entire year of 2018.

Illustration by Caroline Scharf

The most recent of the 12 occurred on Sept. 7 when the NPD and the Novato Fire District responded to several 911 calls about a fire near Mountain Mike’s Pizza located at 1561 South Novato Blvd. Within minutes another fire was observed just a few hundred feet away, this time near the Novato Creek by the intersection of Novato Blvd. and Diablo Ave. The third fire located on Front St. was spotted by Corporal Wes Carroll, an officer on patrol that day. He identified 55 year old John Davies as the alleged arsonist.

“I followed him at a distance, and then eventually he bent down and lit some dry grass on fire in front of me. I couldn’t believe my eyes and raced to put him in handcuffs,” Carroll said.

According to the Marin Independent Journal, Davies was taken to Marin County Jail following his arrest on a $100,000 bail.

However, Novato is not the only city in Marin where arson is increasing; the San Rafael Police Department has responded to 22 cases of arson this year, a 37.5% increase from 2018.

Senior Delaney Allen was the victim of one of those arsonist attacks and shared that her home in San Rafael was targeted on July 9.

“[My mother] woke up and noticed there were wet spots on our driveway, all over our stairs and the side of our house. She went to investigate what happened and realized [the wet spots] were motor oil. She also noticed that there were burn marks on the bushes,” Allen said.

The police explained that the fire had most likely gone out because motor oil is not easily flammable, but confirmed an attempted arson. Possible footage of the arsonists was found on their neighbors’ security cameras.

“[It shows] two young men walking down the street at almost 12 in the morning. In the video, you can see they were flicking a lighter. They were walking towards our house, and then 15 minutes later, you see them sprinting down the middle of the street away from our house,” Allen said.

The video was too fuzzy to make out the men’s faces, and the police have not yet successfully identified those responsible. Allen hopes the arsonists will be brought to justice as there is still an ongoing investigation.

However, all of these instances and the statistical growth of arson in Marin County beg the question, why are arson fires increasing?

Novato firefighter and fire investigator Lance Macdonald suggests that the wildfire season may be to blame.

“Over the years [the Novato Fire District has] had various arsons. Sadly when other fires are going on, more people think they should light fires, too. It’s a trend,” Macdonald said.

USA Today reports that California state agencies have seen a 20% increase in the number of arson cases in the past six years, and the Los Angeles Times reported that eight of the 10 most massive fires in California history have burned in the past decade.

A second explanation for arson fires increasing is the COVID-19 pandemic. This conclusion was drawn by the University of Southern California’s data journalism organization, Crosstown. After analyzing data from the Los Angeles Police Department, their study accredited the increase in arson cases in Los Angeles to various factors. The first was the 16.1% increase in homelessness in Los Angeles this past year, a usually prevalent issue worsened by the pandemic. So far, in 2020, almost 14% of Los Angeles arson cases involved a homeless suspect or victim, while only 9% of incidents from 2019 involved someone homeless. They also highlighted that COVID-19 introduced stay-at-home orders that shrunk neighborhood watches and intensified economic stress. The study concluded that both of these effects could motivate someone struggling to set their property on fire to collect insurance money.


While the increase in arson in Marin County is a frightening reality to face, experts encourage people to be aware of the real possibility of fire emergencies. Macdonald stressed the importance of having a plan and highlighted that the Novato Fire District has been implementing new evacuation and preparedness procedures. 

To create an evacuation checklist and access an evacuation route for your neighborhood, check out the Novato Fire District’s website: