As of October, 29 arsons have been reported. That’s up from 21 last year and 17 in 2009.
The FBI’s Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report states that from January to June 2011, the number of arson-related fires decreased nationally in cities with populations of 100,000 to 250,000 by 13.5 percent, and was down in the South by 7 percent.
Between 2009 and 2010, reported arsons decreased 14.6 percent nationwide. Law enforcement agencies in all four regions had reported fewer arsons, including a decline of 14.3 percent in the South, according to the FBI’s Web site.
Dwayne Garriss, the Georgia state fire marshal, speculated that arsons might be increasing in Richmond County because investigators are getting more educated on the subject and are more likely to detect whether a fire is arson or accidental.
He said a centralized database by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allows investigators to track all the arsons in Georgia, helping them see what others are doing. Lt. Carlton Bradley, a Richmond County fire investigator, said arsons are often cyclical.
Before the recent rise, arson numbers had dipped drastically in Richmond County. They had dropped to 17 in 2009 after two years of significant increases: 44 in 2008 and 64 in 2007, according to the county’s Web site. In 2006, only 26 cases were reported.
Robert Duval, the senior fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association, said when the economy started to decline, a warning was issued about a likely increase in arsons.
“Everyone said to look out for people burning their homes that they couldn’t afford and the big SUVs that take so much gas,” said Duval.
Bradley said a lot of cases in Richmond County are related to domestic disputes instead of economics.
“They are trying to hurt the person, their personal effects, or both,” said Bradley.
Duval said domestic arson cases can be some of the most dangerous.
“People are blinded by anger,” he said. “They will set a house or car on fire. In the worst cases, they can involve children: ‘If I can’t have them, neither can you.’ ”
Bradley said another reason why people might turn to arson is because fire is cheap.
“They already have the gasoline most times,” he said. “Guns are harder to come by.”
Lt. Brian Brazier, of the Aiken fire department, said the city does not have a big problem with arson, although numbers in Aiken have risen the past three years.
In 2009, there was one arson: a burglar trying to cover up his crime. In 2010, the only case involved a high school student who lit a toilet paper dispenser on fire in a school bathroom.
So far in 2011 Aiken has had four cases.
Two fires were set to cover up other crimes, and the other two involved juveniles playing with matches. Aiken has not had any economic-related fires in the past three years.
Columbia County has not seen a noticeable increase in arson in the past three years.
The numbers were not readily available, but Capt. Daniel Gwinn, a Columbia County investigator, said he has not seen a spike in fires to try to get insurance money or domestic-related fires. He said it has mostly been juveniles.
Arson investigation is a long and very detailed process, Duval said. “It is a tricky crime to determine,” he said. “And a very tricky crime to prove.”
The punishment for arson in the first degree is 20 years, even if the intended property does not get too severely damaged.
“If the intent is there, they will face the charges,” Bradley said.