Arson in America: An alarming reality?

NEW YORK CITY - It was one of the deadliest fires in New York City in recent years.

Guatemala-born Miguel Chan was so desperate to save his family that he threw his infant daughter out the window of his burning Brooklyn apartment. She survived, others did not.

"I lost my wife, my four friends," Chan says of the Jan. 30, 2010 fire. Police immediately suspected arson and three days later arrested Daniel Ignacio, a neighbor who confessed he was drunk and influenced by "demons or devils" when he set the apartment fire killing five Guatemalans.

It was an open-and-shut case of arson to everyone – except the federal government.

Like 99 percent of New York's arsons, the intentional fire that killed Miguel Chan's wife and his friends was never reported into the federal database that tracks arson in America.

"This is unbelievable. Everyone knows that this was an arson," said the Rev. Erick Salgado, pastor of Chan's Guatemalan church who helped police make an arrest.

Just 5 percent of all residential building fires are intentionally set, according to the National Fire Incident Reporting System – or NFIRS – the world's largest, national database of annual fire incident information and part of the Department of Homeland Security.

But arson actually is much more common than is reported by the U.S. government, Scripps Howard News Service found in a yearlong national investigation. Most acts of arson in America go unreported to the federal government, the investigation found.

For example, in 2011:

-- Chicago reported just 61 building arsons when it had at least 192.

-- Houston said it had 25 intentional fires when it really had 224.

-- Indianapolis reported no arsons when it should have reported at least 216.

-- New York told of just 11 arsons instead of 1,347 it really discovered.

In all, Scripps contacted 10 fire departments in America's largest cities to ask for case-by-case records of their arsons to compare what was reported to NFIRS against what should have been reported.

One city, Detroit, said it could not produce a complete arson count or make its records available because the financially-strapped city lacks the personnel to do so.

"This is a modest guess, but I think 75 percent of our fires are arson, maybe more," said El Don Parham, Detroit's chief of fire investigations. "We are not able to cover (investigate) even half of our fires. We have to prioritize."

The nine remaining cities did report data, although New York has yet to give the exact locations and dates of its arsons. These cities originally reported 652 arsons to the federal government in 2011, but actually detected at least 2,754 deliberately set fires that year.

That means three-fourths of the arsons uncovered by investigators in those cities went unreported to the U.S. Fire Administration, masking a major threat to public safety.


 

"Arson is grossly underreported," concluded Bill Degnan, New Hampshire's fire marshal and the president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals. "I believe the rate of arson in America is somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent, in that range."

The quality of the federal data is haphazard and the underreporting of arson could have serious consequences:

-- Cities and towns are not focusing enough of America's 1.1 million firefighters to combat arson.

-- Up to half of the 3,000 fire deaths each year should be treated as homicides.

-- Arsonists may remain at large, free to burn.

-- Much of the $15.5 billion paid last year by insurance companies (and their clients) should be contested since arson often involves fraud.

The U.S. Fire Administration has given out $4 billion in grants to participate in NFIRS without penalties for inaccurate information. The agency does not audit the reporting.

About 23,000 fire departments in all 50 states and the District of Columbia report to NFIRS each year. The database comprises 75 percent of all reported fires in America annually. But most of America's fire departments -- especially small and volunteer fire units -- don't report any arson activity in their communities.

According to Scripps' study of 1 million building fires reported from 2006 through 2011 to the U.S. Fire Administration, more than half of the departments who report to NFIRS said that none of the 140,000 building fires they fought were intentionally set.

The Scripps investigation found that every major city it contacted has failed to report significant numbers of arsons. And there are many reasons why.

The worst was New York City, which in 2010 reported only 19 acts of arson in building fires even though its Bureau of Fire Investigation found there were at least 1,486 intentional building fires that year.

City fire administrators say it's a technology issue and deny there was any motive in not reporting the 2010 fire at Miguel Chan's apartment as arson.

"This was an administrative and clerical thing. We aren't trying to keep anything quiet or secretive," said Jim Long, spokesman for the Fire Department of New York. "We were holding press conferences in which we identified that as an incendiary fire."

The city's Bureau of Fire Investigation actually detects arson in about 40 percent of the cases it investigations in recent years. Detectives at the Bureau of Fire Investigation have their own reporting system which does not have a physical link to NFIRS.

"We are working toward linking those two databases," Long said.

The Houston Fire Department reports only about one in every eight arsons it detects to federal authorities. In 2011, according to the Scripps review, it detected at least 224 arsons, but reported only 25 of them to the U.S. Fire Administration.





As was common with many of the departments contacted in the investigation, Houston officials said there is disconnect between the firefighters who battle blazes and the arson investigators who search for their causes.

"It's the firefighters on the trucks who are filling out the NFIRS reports. We don't," said Deputy Chief Ed Arthur, head of Houston's Arson Bureau. "But they are not going to know what cause the fires. We make that determination."

Degnan said the National Association of State Fire Marshals is aware of the problem and established a group a year ago to investigate why most arsons go unreported. The group will make recommendations in January calling for the nation's fire departments to "close the loop" and report the outcomes of their arson investigations, he said.

He also said local investigators often are reluctant, even fearful, to report arson to NFIRS.

"Unfortunately, many people shy away from making the correct call even though they might believe that a fire is incendiary," Degnan said. "They are concerned that they are going to be ‘called in' if they call it wrong."

Firefighters have told his group that "making the call" – declaring the cause of a fire – means putting their reputation on the line with their chiefs. Many don't want to risk making a wrong call. That means a lot of fires go down as "cause undetermined" or permanently "under investigation."

Officials with the U.S. Fire Administration have declined repeated requests for interviews, including requests via certified mail.

John R. Hall Jr., research director at the National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit group that sets investigation standards, defends the low arson estimates.

"Over the years I've had fire chiefs and fire officers tell me that they think the arson numbers are underreported. They've been of the view that it's half or more than half," Hall said. "They always assume they know better than the data."

Most arsons in Houston, as in New York, are reported to NFIRS as "under investigation."

Among the fires still waiting for resolution more than two years later is the much-publicized Jan. 3, 2011 blaze that destroyed a $2 million Victorian-style home in Houston's trendy Heights neighborhood that killed Evelyn "Patti" Worthington, 68, and her caretaker. The city arson squad still lists the cause as "pending."

"Obviously, it would be good for everyone if there was a final resolution to this," said Worthington's ex-husband, David Worthington of Naples, Fla. "Was it an accident? Possibly. But it's hard to surmise what happened."

One of Worthington's neighbors, Bart Truxillo, isn't surprised fire investigators are slow in making a call in the Worthington fire since he, personally, saw them call another one wrong. Fire investigators at first blamed faulty wiring for two deaths in a home Truxillo owned until an insurance investigator proved that Annie Caballero, 22, had died before the fire started 13 years ago. The case is now considered an unsolved homicide.

"All the fire department did was to bring their dog to sniff around, but they didn't

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