Man arrested in connection with Portola arson fires

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer
Updated 9/20/2011

Arson suspect Harold Ellis Johnson

An 18-year-old Portola man was arrested Thursday, Sept. 15, and charged with two counts of arson for two recent fires, including the blaze that destroyed the historic Western Pacific Hospital in Portola.

Harold Ellis Johnson was arrested by Plumas County Sheriff’s deputies and booked into the county jail, where he is being held on $100,000 bail.

Sheriff’s Investigator Steve Peay said his office acted on information received over the past several days that led to Johnson.

Johnson, who lists his address as 401 Nevada St. in Portola, was picked up by deputies Thursday afternoon.

Peay said Johnson was arrested at the sheriff’s office in Quincy at 4:35 p.m.

“He basically admitted his involvement,” Peay said. “He said he acted alone.”

Peay said the case has been submitted to the Plumas County District Attorney’s Office.

Johnson is charged with starting fires Sept. 7 and Sept. 8. Both fires were set about 1 a.m.

The Sept. 7 fire burned the 100-year-old Western Pacific Hospital to the ground.

The following morning, another fire was spotted in a small grove of trees below Feather River Middle School and along the electrical substation on Gulling Street in Portola.

A patrolling deputy spotted the Sept. 8 fire, and the Portola Fire Department responded in time to extinguish the blaze before it could spread to the vacated school building.

Sheriff Greg Hagwood applauded the Portola community for its help in the investigation.

“The cooperation from the community was a big help,” Hagwood said. “I think it was a phenomenal effort by the citizens of Portola to help us get a real serious problem under control.

“I applaud Sgt. Steve Peay and his investigations unit. I’m incredibly pleased.”

The Feather River Rail Society and Western Pacific Railroad Museum of Portola own the Western Pacific Hospital property. The organizations offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the fire.

Frank Brehm, Feather River Rail Society director and fire marshal, said he is awaiting word from the sheriff to see if someone is eligible for the reward.

Brehm said the destruction of the historic hospital is “a devastating loss, both physically and historically, for the Feather River Rail Society and the city of Portola.”

He said the hospital was “a unique historic artifact” and plans were in place to restore the structure as a showpiece library and historical center.

Brehm thanked the sheriff’s office for its efforts.

“And I want to thank the Portola and surrounding fire departments for their quick and professional actions,” Brehm said. “They prevented the spread of the fire to other nearby buildings.”

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