- Cornelius Frolik Staff Writer
The city of Dayton ended 2017 with at least 121 incendiary fires, which is more than the city had in 2015 when it was one of the highest in the nation.
In 2015, Dayton had the seventh highest per capita arson rate in the country among cities with populations of at least 100,000 residents, according to federal data analyzed by this newspaper.
The FBI has not released 2016 arson data for U.S. cities, but the number of incendiary fires in Dayton has remained steady for multiple years.
Incendiary fires are deliberately set in an area or under circumstances in which the responsible party knows a fire should not be ignited, which includes arsons.
The Dayton Fire Department has focused on increasing contacts with potential witnesses of arson crimes to try to identify firestarters and bring them to justice, and officials plan to try to use social media to better share and collect information.
The “Dayton Fire Department endeavors to reduce the impact of arson crime in the city of Dayton by maintaining an average of three reliable witness contacts per investigation,” Dayton Fire Chief Jeff Payne said last month.
The Dayton Fire Department responded to about 386 structure fires through the end of November, the city said.
The fire investigation unit probed about 200 fire incidents and determined about 121 were incendiary, the city said.
That compares to 122 fires that were ruled incendiary in 2016 and 120 in 2015. The number of incendiary fires for 2017 is through early December, and the final tally may be higher.
In 2015, Dayton had about 62 arsons per 100,000 residents, which was the seventh highest rate among cities with populations of at least 100,000 people (290 cities meet that criteria), the FBI data show.
Among cities with populations of at least 50,000 residents, Dayton’s arson rate was 14th highest (out of 764 U.S. cities).
Dayton has a large number of vacant properties, which tend to attract arsonists and trespassers who may start fires to keep warm or for other reasons.
On the bright side, incendiary fires in 2016 and 2017 are trending below Dayton’s four-year average between 2012 and 2015, which was 132. fires annually, according to the fire department.
An investigation has determined that the massive Nov. 10 blaze at the Hewitt Soap factory in east Dayton was deliberately set, officials said.
Brett Houseman, whose family owns the property, says the factory has been a popular target of metal scrappers, vandals and squatters.
The blaze was the largest fire in the city since another building in the complex caught fire in December 2016, officials said.
Incendiary fires involving commercial properties often grow to be large and dangerous blazes that put firefighters’ safety and nearby structures at risk and can leave behind burnt-out shells of buildings that are vexing neighborhood eyesores.
The fire at the soap factory required a massive response. Six of the fire department’s eight engines responded.
Houseman said it’s unfortunate that firefighters are having to put their lives on the line to battle blazes that were deliberately set or set by squatters who wanted to keep warm.
“I think it’s a real problem,” he said.
This year, investigators concluded that individuals intentionally set fire to eight commercial properties as well as 65 residential properties, 19 garages or sheds and five vehicles, according to city data.
There were two dozen arson fires that were listed as “other” or “type not reported.”
The factory fire last month was to a building that was used for storage. The factory closed more than a decade ago.
Firefighters did not enter the factory building for safety reasons because the structure was at risk of collapsing.
Demolition crews were later called out to knock down unstable portions of the building.
This year, the fire department plans to employ new technology to try and combat arson crime.
Strategies include using social media in the hopes of improving communication with the public and getting people to report tips about arson incidents and suspects, said Chief Payne.
The fire department has set a goal of making contact with at least three witnesses at every suspected arson scene to try to solve more arson crimes.
“We expect the difference in increased citizen contacts to lead to more information developed about specific incidents, increased awareness of the citizens of our unit’s efforts and ultimately more arrests for the crime of arson in the city,” fire officials said in a statement to this newspaper.
Witnesses are helpful for every type of fire, regardless of cause, and the more information fire investigators have, the more effectively they can process fire scenes and try to identify the people responsible for intentional fires, fire officials said.
The Dayton Fire Department asks anyone with information about suspicious fires to contact their tip line at 937-333-TIPS or at daytonohiofire.com and click the scrolling link on the home page that says how to report arson.
Visitors can upload photos and submit other information, anonymously if they choose, to help with fire investigations.