Vancouver police arrested a 42-year-old man suspected of arson in three fires at Masonic lodges in Metro Vancouver on Tuesday morning.
The arrest came after an off-duty police officer driving past the Masonic temple near Rupert Street and East 29th Avenue in Vancouver noticed a man walking away from the building as it burned, according to Vancouver Police Department (VPD) Const. Tania Visintin.
Video taken by a bystander shows flames licking at an entrance to the temple as a man carries a red jerrycan to the trunk of a black van. He is then confronted by the off-duty officer.
The man managed to get away but was then arrested just before 10 a.m. in Burnaby near North Fraser Way and Marine Way, about a 20-minute drive from the location of the last of the fires, according to police.
"He did a great job in stopping and speaking to this suspect," Visintin told reporters during a news conference, referring to the off-duty officer.
"He attempted to take the suspect into custody, a fight ensued, and the suspect was able to get away."
The Vancouver fire followed two other blazes that were reported earlier in the morning at Masonic lodges in North Vancouver. Police say no one was injured during the fires or the arrest, and are recommending arson charges.
Investigators have released few details about the suspect or possible motives, except to say that he has a history of interactions with the police and no history of arson.
"We don't have answers as to the motive," North Vancouver RCMP Sgt. Peter DeVries said. "Those are questions that we want answers to as well."
Visintin said she was not aware of any specific threats to Masonic organizations before Tuesday's fires.
Fires began early Tuesday morning
North Vancouver RCMP received reports of the first fire at the Lynn Valley lodge just before 6:45 a.m.
A few minutes later, just before 7 a.m., they were notified of a second fire at Duke of Connaught Lodge No. 64 near Lonsdale Ave. and 12th St., a 10-minute drive away.
First responders said the third fire was reported at the Park Lodge Masonic Hall in Vancouver just before 7:30 a.m.
"This was a really quick-moving, fast investigation," DeVries said.
While police tried to identify a suspect and draw connections between the three fires, officers were posted to other Masonic halls in the city.
In Vancouver, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Sereda said police were already on scene by the time fire crews arrived.
"They had been contacted by a passerby," he said, adding a fire investigator was also at the scene to determine the cause of the fire.
The glass of the centre's front door had been smashed and the inside stairwell was burned and blackened.
Lonsdale fire 'a scene of devastation'
In North Vancouver's Lonsdale neighbourhood, Terri Bubas said she could see flames from the Duke of Connaught Lodge No. 64 from two blocks away.
"Lots of flames and the brickwork has collapsed and the top of the building," she said. "It's quite a scene of devastation, actually."
Bubas saw at least five fire trucks along with police cars and ambulances on scene.
The city block where the Lonsdale fire started includes a fitness centre, a juice restaurant and office space.
'The whole sky was filled with smoke'
In North Vancouver's Lynn Valley area, Assistant Fire Chief Jeremy Duncan said a neighbour reported the fire at the Lynn Valley Lodge, near Lynn Valley Road and Harold Road.
"Upon arrival there was heavy flames on the entrance way and the exterior of the building," he said. Additional units were called to respond, Duncan said, and at least 26 firefighters were on the scene.
Hannah Sluis, a barista at Waves Coffee on Mountain Highway, says she saw flames engulfing the lodge as she drove to work.
"As I got to work the whole sky was filled with smoke," she said. "I just did my best to keep it out of the store."
Sluis said she saw at least eight firefighters on the scene and that the road had been blocked off.