87 fires in 5 days in Twin Cities. Task force formed to track down arsonists.

The Twin Cities witnessed 87 fires in five days during the heat of recent unrest, officials said Tuesday in announcing a new task force to track down arsonists believed to be responsible for a large portion of them.

“Eighty-seven’s an enormous number,” Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said at an afternoon news conference, citing figures from the state fire marshal’s office. Under normal circumstances, that period might see one or two fires, he said.

Fires have blazed across St. Paul and Minneapolis over the past week as rioting, arson and looting punctuated mass protests over last week’s death of George Floyd, a black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Harrington said the task force consists of personnel from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, St. Paul and Minneapolis fire departments, arson investigators from the two cities’ police departments, and the state fire marshal’s office.

“Today they are starting to work that list of fires to find where are commonalities, where are the common criminal threads, and they are also going out to collect those incendiary devices — those bottles of gasoline that we’ve been hearing stories about but, frankly, had not physically gotten our hands on,” he said. “So now we have folks out there picking those up. … We know that so many of those fires were deliberately set.”

Harrington said tracking down the arsonists isn’t just a matter of investigating a statutory crime, but part of the broader issue of seeking justice in the aftermath of the riots.

“It was not just stuff,” Harrington said, noting that many of the fires have left small-business owners with little prospects for rebuilding, workers without jobs, and communities without access to food, medicine and other goods and services.

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