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Officials See An Increase In Arson Fires During Coronavirus Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Arson appears to be on the rise in the United States. Complete national statistics for 2020 are still being compiled, but local fire departments reported significant increases in arson and other maliciously set fires. NPR's Martin Kaste reports it may be another side effect of the pandemic.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, an overnight fire raced through a strip mall in the Lake City Way neighborhood of Seattle - restaurants, shops, a laundromat. By morning when Paula Donaldson stopped by to take a look, all of it was just charred framing under a collapsed roof.

PAULA DONALDSON: I'm very sad. I mean, I grew up in Seattle, and I'm very sad to see what's - very sad that this is happening.

KASTE: Donaldson was thinking about some other recent suspicious fires in the city. And in fact, the fire department quickly determined that the strip mall fire was arson. It capped a bad year for Seattle, a 66% jump in what's called incendiary fires. That's fires intentionally set where you're not supposed to have a fire. And it's not just Seattle. The FBI's preliminary numbers for the first six months of 2020 show a 19% jump in arson nationally with the biggest jump, more than 50%, in cities of more than a million people. Matthew Smith saw this coming.

MATTHEW SMITH: This became immediately present on our radar screen back in March at the onset of the pandemic.

KASTE: Smith is executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. He's reminded of the increase in arsons during the last economic crisis a decade ago.

SMITH: It was commercial businesses that were no longer economically viable. There were a large number of auto arson claims. And then there's always the issue of home or residential arsons. And all of those saw statistical rises in the United States as a result of the Great Recession.

KASTE: But Smith says we do not know yet that fraud is what's driving arsons this time around. His organization is still gathering data on that. Robert Schaal thinks the picture is likely more complicated.

ROBERT SCHAAL: It's not always the owner.

KASTE: He's a fire investigator with decades of experience at the ATF.

SCHAAL: It could be people striking out at authority. It could be vandals, for lack of a better word, because they see vacant property and they decide to burn it for whatever reason.

KASTE: Seattle's numbers, for instance, were inflated by fires set during last summer's protests and riots, such as the torching of police cars. Other fires were linked to the city's rapidly growing homeless camps. Schaal says just having less foot traffic in a neighborhood because of the pandemic can lead to people squatting in empty buildings.

SCHAAL: Subsequently, there's a fire at the building. Was it arson or was it just somebody in there trying to stay warm and the fire got out of hand? It's hard to tell sometimes.

KASTE: He recommends that cities use the Abandoned Building Toolbox. It's a federally sponsored plan for clearing and boarding up structures so that they're less likely to catch fire. Seattle's code compliance manager, Michele Hunter, says the city was already doing a version of that before COVID started. But there are more squatters now, in part because Seattle police have become less available to enforce trespassing laws.

MICHELE HUNTER: As that change has also happened alongside of the pandemic, we have had more occupied buildings that we've had more issues with.

KASTE: She says her department tells owners to keep their buildings occupied as long as possible.

HUNTER: If it does unfortunately have to become vacant, they still have a responsibility to keep their eyes on it, to keep it secured, closed to entry, free of debris, free of overgrowth so that we don't have to be concerned about fires.

KASTE: A boarded-up building may look depressing, but it's better than a burned-out hulk. And the hope is that that plywood on the windows will make it easier to revive the neighborhood once the pandemic loosens its grip.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.