In a typical year, Missoula sees about three car fires—on par with most U.S. towns of similar size. But just since June of this year, 11 Missoula cars have gone up in flames, most recently on October 18, with five clearly being arson, and three others likely so.
“When a car hasn’t been moved in a month and starts on fire at three in the morning, it’s very suspicious,” says Fire Inspector Jason Diehl.
Fire Inspector Gary Honold, who works with Diehl on the investigations, says that one flaming car didn’t even have a battery in it.
“It’s pretty hard to have a mechanical fire in a car without a battery,” says Honold.
Diehl and Honold have discovered a pattern. All the fires started between midnight and 4 a.m. in the areas of 34th and South Russell or the Northside/Westside; the arsonist or arsonists only burn unlocked cars; and gasoline or some other flammable liquid is the suspected fuel.
The inspectors investigated all the usual leads and have come up with nothing, they say.
“One thing we look at is if there’s a motive,” says Diehl. “Has the vehicle been recently insured? Does the car not run so somebody takes out a policy and torches it? But that isn’t the case with any of these. We also asked the vehicle owners if they’ve had bad dealings with somebody, or if there’s any reason for them to believe that anybody would want to burn their vehicle, and the answer has been no.”
With their investigation stalled, Diehl decided to enlist the public’s help through the Crimestoppers network (721-4444). Diehl hopes that after hearing about the fires someone will come forward with helpful information—there’s a cash reward—but he isn’t optimistic.
“There’s usually not too many eye-witnesses at three in the morning,” he says. “So we’re just going to keep looking for leads.”