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U.S. ARSON TRENDS AND PATTERNS

 

John R. Hall, Jr.
Fire Analysis and Research Division National Fire Protection Association 1 Batterymarch Park
P.O. Box 9101
Quincy, MA 02269-9101

 

January 2000

Copyright©, 2000, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA 02269

Arson Trends and Patterns is available through NFPA's One-Stop Data Shop.
The cost of the report is $35.10 for NFPA members and $39.00 for nonmembers (US dollars). There is no charge to the fire service. To place an order contact Nancy Schwartz at osds@nfpa.org or by telephone at 1-617-984-7450 (US)
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Executive Summary

Incendiary and suspicious fires in structures decreased 3% in 1998 to the lowest total in the 22 years studied. Incendiary and suspicious causes remain the #1 cause of property damage due to fire in the U.S.A. In 1998, for the fourth straight year, juvenile firesetters accounted for half or more of those arrested for arson. Their share in 1998 was 52% of all arrests.

The number of incendiary and suspicious structure fires fell to 76,000 in 1998. The death toll in these structure fires rose slightly to 470, still the second lowest figure in the 22 years studied. Incendiary and suspicious vehicle fires fell very slightly to 45,000. Direct property damage to structures and vehicles caused by incendiary and suspicious fires totaled $1.249 billion in 1998, a decrease of 5%.

When outdoor fires and a proportional share of fires with unknown causes are added, losses to arson or suspected arson typically total around $2 billion, or roughly one of every four dollars lost to fire in a typical year. The total number of incendiary and suspicious fires with this allocation of a share of unknown-cause fires is typically half a million, two-thirds of them outdoor trash or grass fires. Both 1997 figures were below these typical levels.

The NFPA has estimated the number of incendiary and suspicious structure fires since 1977, and in 16 of the 21 years since then, the number has fallen or stayed the same, for a cumulative drop of 55%. Direct losses in those fires have risen but by less than the rate of inflation, and the cumulative drop after adjusting for inflation has been 54%. However, most of the decline in fires and losses occurred prior to 1984, and the trend in inflation-adjusted losses was upward from 1990 to 1993, driven by large-loss fires. In 1994 to 1998, the only comparable incident was in 1995, so the trend through 1998 ended with a large decrease.

Preliminary results of a special study indicate a substantial link between arson

and illegal drug activity, on the order of one-fifth to one-fourth (20-25%) of reported arson cases in affected cities. Confirmed incendiary fires account for one-third of the total arson problem, and since part of the use of arson as a weapon is intimidation, which requires an awareness by a victim that he is the target of a hostile act, it is unlikely that fires reported as suspicious or unknown cause show as great a link to illegal drug activity. Drug activity may be linked to some suspicious fires, but this may be offset by a reduced link between drug activity and arson in communities smaller than the cities studied. Therefore, the overall percentage of set fires linked to illegal drug activity would be estimated as one-third of 20-25%, or 7-8% of the estimated incendiary or suspicious fires in those cities. This is a small fraction but a large enough number of fires (thousands to tens of thousands) to justify special attention.

Arson receives more attention and publicity than any other type of fire, and perhaps for that reason, it has developed a number of persistent myths. One is that arson is the fastest-growing crime in the U.S. Since it is not growing, this is far from true. A second is that arson is hard to solve because it destroys all the evidence. In fact, arson cases are as likely to be solved as any other property crime, and most arson fires do not grow large enough to destroy all evidence. A third is that there is a link between arson and trends in the economy, particularly recessions. In hard times, it is not unusual for local fire officials and insurance adjusters in some communities to report apparent jumps in some types of arson. The national statistics, however, do not show evidence of a significant link, and some other motives are consistently found, in special studies, to account for larger shares of arson than arson-for-profit.

Statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the Uniform Crime Reports show that in 1998 juveniles (under age 18) accounted for 52% of all arson arrests and 45% of all arson offenses solved by arrest, both historically high values. No other FBI index crime (the most serious felonies) has so high a rate of juvenile involvement.

The percentage of 1998 arson arrestees under age ten – 5.7% - was by far the highest for any crime the FBI tracks, whether major or minor. One-third of all 1998 arson arrestees (34.6%) were under age 15. Progress in reducing arson clearly requires more widespread use of juvenile firesetter counseling and related fire prevention education programs. Their success, in turn, depends upon a recognition of the different types of juvenile firesetters and the extent to which the degree of emotional disturbances is often correlated with the age of the perpetrator. (Note that fires due to fireplay - fires set by children too young to understand the consequences of their actions - are not included in arson statistics.) A typology of juvenile firesetters, such as the one used by the U.S. Fire Administration, is essential to an effective matching of counseling program with juvenile firesetter.

Only 16% of 1998 arson offenses were solved by arrest, according to FBI statistics, which was typical for property crimes.

By combining NFPA analysis of fire causes with a series of U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) special studies of the criminal justice system, it is possible to estimate that only about 2% of set fires lead to convictions. Of all the incendiary, suspicious, and unknown-cause fires that the NFPA estimates are set fires, only one-third are confirmed as incendiary which must happen for the police to consider them as arson offenses. Of those, 80-85% are never solved. Of those that are solved by arrest, about half of the suspects are never prosecuted. And about one-third of those prosecuted are not convicted. Put these together, and the result is only 2% of set fires lead to convictions.

Other DoJ studies suggest that about one-third of those convicted receive no jail or prison time and most who are convicted get less than two years. Once released, more than half who were imprisoned will be rearrested (not necessarily for arson) within three years.

These statistics point to areas of potential improvement throughout the process, but the greatest leverage by far would be achieved in the earliest stages of confirming fires as set and solving arson crimes, both of which require more investigative resources, including training, for fire and police departments. And the large role of children and of adults who are emotionally disturbed shows that most arsons are not set by people sophisticated about fire, and many are cries for help that might be deflected to other channels if fire-setting were made more difficult. Arson may be reduced, for example, by increased security, reduced access to attractive sites, and removal of attractive fuel sources, like trash.

 

 
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