Empty structures an urban nuisance, arsonist’s delight

“Vacant buildings are a city’s Achilles heel,” said Joe Toscano of the International Association of Arson Investigators, adding that they are particularly attractive to young people.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration statistics, more than 12,000 fires in vacant structures are reported each year, resulting in $73 million in property damage annually.

This year through Sept. 7, there have been 54 vacant structures burned in Dayton, 43 of which are suspected arsons.

Best practices

Following a 1999 fire in Worcester, Mass., in a vacant cold storage in which six firefighters were killed searching for a homeless couple, IAAI officials came up with a best practices program for securing vacant buildings. The program was distributed to communities, fire departments and police departments around the country.

Many of those best practices are used by Dayton officials.

So far this year, the city has boarded up more than 700 “open” structures out of an estimated 15,000, said Max Fuller, manager of the city’s housing inspection unit.

Part of the job is finding who is responsible for the property and getting them either to secure the building or pay for the securing. Once secured by the city, a warning against entering the building is stenciled to the boarded-up windows and doors.

“That way, the neighbors know no one is supposed to be there,” Fuller said. “Neighbors often call police and the trespassers often are arrested and jailed. Our primary mission is to secure neighborhoods as best we can.”

The city also tears down vacant buildings deemed nuisance properties. In 2008 and 2009, the city demolished 500 each year and hopes to do the same this year and more next year, depending on federal funding, according to Fuller.

With 15,000 structures with which to deal, Fuller said the city is looking at a decade-long process.

“Vacant buildings are something we can do something about,” the IAAI’s Tuscano said. “It’s a cancer that keeps on spreading. If you don’t do something, it will bite you.”

Motivation

While serial arsonists are rare, they are the ones who can do the most damage, according to Eric Hickey, dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University. And many serial arsonists start early.

“Most juvenile fire-setters (those under 18) don’t become adult serial arsonists. But most serial arsonists were juvenile fire-setters,” said Hickey, a psychologist who has studied serial offenders and consulted with law enforcement.

Such offenders often do not stop after a conviction, unless the underlying reasons for the arson is addressed. While in custody, the serial arsonist “is in a hiatus. It may break him of the acting out, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

To Hickey, arsons by children are an “acting out,” a sign of deep trauma. “Unless you get to the cause, unless there is adequate intervention, odds are (some juvenile fire-setters) will act out again. ... progress to more adult predatory behavior,” he said.

On the street

In 2009, the Fire Department hired two more full-time arson investigators to help out Vicki Carr, who had been the department’s lone full-time investigator for three years.

Accidental fires — a knocked-over candle, a discarded cigarette, a fire lit to keep warm — caused by the homeless and other trespassers are considered arsons. Sometimes it’s revenge or a neighbor who wants to get rid of the eyesore, the noxious odor or a drug house, Carr said.

“Then there are some that make no sense at all,” she said.

When Carr started her first of two stints as an arson investigator in 1988, “we did not have vacant house fires because there just wasn’t the store of vacant houses in Dayton at that time.”

Fast-forward two decades and the landscape has changed.

“Our major problem here is vacant house fires. Of the ones we investigate, I would say 70 percent are vacant house fires or garages behind vacant houses,” Carr said.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2290 or dpage@DaytonDailyNews.com.

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