An arsonist has set 35 fires over the past five years, police say

GULFPORT - Harold Russell's pride and joy is his restaurant, the Back Fin Blue Cafe in Gulfport.  Thanks to a serial arsonist, it almost went up in smoke two weeks ago.

"It is a serious thing," said Russell.  "Not just a childish prank."

Police say someone set fire to a palm tree at the back of Russell's property along with his fence.  Both are less than five feet from him restaurant, which is built completely of wood. 

"It looked like someone dumped a giant charcoal grill back here in the alley," Russell explained.

Gulfport police believe Russell fell victim to a serial arsonist who has set almost 35 fires in the area over the past five years.  Ten fires were set in 2012.

"In my years of being here, it is very rare that I touch my fire extinguisher.  Now I am turning one in every week," said Sgt. Robert Burkhart with Gulfport PD.

Sgt. Burkhart has been the first on the scene at many of these fires.  He says they are mostly set at night, in alleys and to palm trees.

However, that changed roughly two weeks ago when a power pole off 57th Street South was set ablaze.

"There is a lot of electrical damage.  As you can see, everything on this telephone pole is brand new," Sgt. Burkhart explained.

The fire caused $20,000 worth of damage and left area residents without electricity for at least a day.

Sgt. Burkhart said first responders were lucky because the fire spread up the pole and on to two adjacent palm trees all within 10 feet of an apartment complex.

The fire outside of Russell's restaurant ripped through a telephone line as well, making it impossible for patrons to use credit or debit cards.

"Hopefully the person that is doing it will realize at times they are jeopardizing people's jobs or welfare," Russell said.

So far, no one has been injured in these fires or lost their lives.

"We have been fortunate the past five years," Sgt. Burkhart added.

Police say this arsonist is purposely setting fires because it is extremely dry outside and the hope is that the fire will spread.

This month alone when we have seen little to no rain five fires have been set.

A reward is being offered for information that leads to an arrest.

Anyone with any information is being urged to contact Gulfport Police Department at 727.582.6177.

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