Detroit is arson capital, data confirms
Detroit — Nationwide fire data support Detroit's reputation among firehouses as the arson capital of the United States.
"It's been that way for years. Every time you'd go to a seminar, you meet up with investigators nationwide and all they want to talk about is Detroit," said Jon Bozich, who retired in 2001 as the chief of the city's Arson Squad. "People used to say the arsons would only stop when the city runs out of fuel. It hasn't happened yet."
Detroit has averaged 3,800 to 6,000 suspicious building fires annually for years. Of those, about 700 to 1,000 are usually investigated and confirmed as arson, according to department statistics.
Nationwide, no city with a population of at least 300,000 has as many suspicious fires or arsons per capita, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports and the National Fire Incident Reporting System of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
And Detroit is near the top of both lists in total suspicious fires and arsons, despite its smaller population. According to the FBI, Detroit was third in arson in 2013 behind Los Angeles and Houston. The NFIRS listed Detroit as second to New York for the number of suspicious fires in 2012, the last year available of nationwide data.
For ranking purposes, The News defined "suspicious fires" by combining two categories of NFIRS data — fires of undetermined origin and those intentionally set. That's how Detroit officials define suspicious fires.
It's also because National Fire Protection Association standards require fires — no mater how suspicious — to be classified as undetermined unless they can be conclusively proved otherwise, said Bobby Schaal, a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent and past president of the International Association of Arson Investigators.
In order to categorize fires as intentional, investigators must prove the use of fuel, heat source and circumstances that brought them together, he said.
Both databases have their problems. The FBI requires cities to submit all 12 months of data or they are discarded. That led to New Orleans being listed as having no arson fires in 2013.
Also, the FBI tracks only confirmed arsons rather than suspicious fires or those believed to be intentionally set. Only 16 percent to 18 percent of suspected intentional fires result in warrants, the lowest among major crimes.
Schaal said NFIRS data is more reliable but can have issues because it requires fire officers at the scene to input a host of information about the fire. The reports are supposed to be updated when fires are investigated, but sometimes aren't, Schaal said.
"The numbers are wacky," he said. "It's bothered me for years. There should be a consistent standard and way to compare cities, but we have to work with what we have."
Detroit had 7.5 intentional or undetermined fires per 1,000 residents, compared with 1 to 2 per 1,000 for cities such as New York, Houston and Chicago, according to NFIRS.
The highest rates in smaller cities near Detroit were 4 per 1,000 in Toledo and 5.5 per 1,000 in Flint.
REPORTING FEDERAL ARSON DATA
The federal government maintains two sets of data about arson and suspicious fires in cities nationwide. Both have problems.
The FBI tracks arson in its listings of major crimes. But the agency allows cities to report their own data. Numbers can be depressed, for instance, if fires aren't investigated and conclusively proven as arson. In 2013, for instance, the FBI reported Detroit had 611 arson fires, even though the city's internal records deemed more than 4,000 fires suspicious.
A better gauge, according to experts, is the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). The database is maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is comprised of fire reports inputted by firefighters at the scene. The fires are broken down into several categories and are supposed to be updated as investigations proceed.
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Kyla Smith contributed