A 21-year-old former San Bernardino County Fire Explorer is suspected of starting numerous fires that resulted in more than $5 million in damages as a diversion to burglarize fire stations across Southern California, the Orange County Fire Authority said Tuesday.
Christian David Saddler, of Hesperia, has been serving a five-year prison sentence on an arson and burglary conviction since July, authorities said.
After a 2-year multi-agency investigation, detectives tied Saddler to other arson and burglary cases in Orange County, where new charges were filed against him, fire officials said.
Saddler is also suspected of setting fires in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and had been previously arrested in Jan. 2017 on similar charges, authorities said.
Fire officials said Saddler “was familiar with fire department culture” because of his time as a fire explorer.
While firefighters were off battling fires Saddler is suspected of setting, he would enter their fire stations and take cash and personal items, Orange County Fire Investigator Captain William Lackey said.
Saddler is suspected of setting an occupied Santa Ana apartment building on fire, as well as a lumber yard in Anaheim and several vehicles across the county, Lackey said.
In one incident, Saddler set a car on fire and it spread to a Santa Ana apartment building where families were asleep, Lackey said. They were alerted to the fire and got out in time.
No injuries were reported in any of the fires, but Lackey said people could have been hurt.
“It’s fortunate no one was injured in these blazes,” Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy said.
Fennessy described Saddler as a “callous criminal who was out for his own gain.”
Investigators were first pointed towards Saddler when Cal Fire announced his arrest in a series of arsons and burglaries in Norco more than two years ago.
Saddler faces nine felony counts of arson and burglary for the Orange County crimes from Dec. 2016. He is being held on $500,000 bail, authorities said.
No charges have been filed yet in the Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino county fires.