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THE SAFETY ZONE

Despite Frequency, Arson Fires Often Remain Unsolved

November 27, 2000|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fire experts say that some 500,000 fires reported annually are caused by arsonists, with damage estimated at $2 billion. In Orange County last year, more than $5.3 million in damage was caused by 758 arson fires--that's an average of more than two per day.

In Orange County, only 71 of those fires have been cleared with a suspect either arrested or known. That's less than 10%, and just below the state clearance average.

Arsonists come in all types, said Thomas Fee, general manager of the California Conference of Arson Investigators.

"You have those who seek revenge, the disgruntled customer who didn't get what he wanted," Fee said. "But then you have your pyromaniacs, who have an uncontrollable urge to set fires."

The pyromaniacs set fires just for the thrill of being involved in something dangerous, said Fee, a former Pomona fire chief.

"Many times they'll be the first ones to report a fire, or they'll be out in the crowd watching," he said. "They've got a secret that nobody standing around them knows, and that's exciting to them."

Most arsonists, fire investigators say, see what they do as a victimless crime.

"They figure the insurance will cover the loss, and nobody really gets hurt," Fee said. "But of course, that's not always the case. There is always the danger that fire of any kind will lead to someone getting killed or injured."

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Another category of arsonist is those who set fire to property, either a store or home, for profit. But that happens less than some people might believe. The Kemper Insurance Co. recently issued a report showing that only 12% of the arson fires at businesses are considered "for profit," so the owners can collect on insurance money.

"Most arson fires are never solved," said Fee of the state arson investigators' group. "Especially where the arsonist's actual connection to the property is remote. It's one thing to have a fire where someone's unhappy with his wife divorcing him. But most fires, it's never that clear why a fire was started."

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