COLUMBIA - In the wettest year since 1993, Boone County Fire Protection District fire investigators have had their busiest year on record.
Intentionally set fires have increased dramatically, leaving local officials with a hefty load of arson investigations.
Some officials have linked the rise in intentional fires to the economic downturn, but reasons for the recent increase are not clear.
"During bad economic times, some folks try to take advantage of fire to help them financially," said State Fire Marshal Randy Cole. "I know that's been a trend in the past."
From Jan. 1 through July 31 this year, the fire district had investigated 36 county fires and determined that 18 were incendiary, meaning they were intentionally set.
That number is up from six fires determined to have been intentionally set in 2007 out of 37 fires investigated that year. Thirty-nine fires were investigated in 2006, only one of which was ruled intentional.
An intentionally set fire does not necessarily rise to the level of felony arson.
"It could be anything from someone having a grass fire on their farm that gets out of hand or juvenile trespassers doing malicious stuff," said Gale Blomenkamp, division chief with the Boone County Fire Protection District.
Blomenkamp said the fire district's job is to determine if a fire was intentionally set and what was used to start it. The fire district then sends its conclusions to the State Fire Marshal's office or to the Boone County Sheriff's Department to build a criminal case and make arrests. The state fire marshal has been involved with seven investigations in Boone County since July 1, 2007.
Bill Zieres, deputy chief investigator for the state fire marshal's office, said that while a link between the Boone County cases has not been established, "that is not to say that there may not be one ... The investigation is ongoing, we haven't pinpointed anything."
Blomenkamp, who is also the fire district's public information officer, declined to let the fire district's investigators speak with the Missourian. "It is policy that all our firefighters don't talk to the media," Blomenkamp said.
Columbia Fire Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said the city has not seen a similar rise in intentionally set fires. In 2007, city investigators ruled 30 fires intentional. There have been eight such fires so far this year in the city.
Statewide intentionally set fires have not increased, Zieres said.
In the last three years, statewide tallies of intentionally set fires have decreased from 310 between June 2005 and July 2006, to 270 fires between June 2007 and July 2008.
Once a fire has been deemed intentional, proving the crime of arson can be a difficult task for law enforcement. Investigators must show not only a cause, but also intent to cause structural damage.
"Arson is one of the hardest crimes to prove," Sapp said. "Depending on the skill level of investigators, and what was left at the scene, can change the results. You have to put a lot together to reach conclusions."
"Most cases are based on circumstantial evidence," Cole said. "It is a challenge, it is frustrating at times."
National Fire Protection Association statistics indicate that arson and suspected arson are the largest causes of property damage in the United States, but only 2 percent result in convictions.
Missouri's arrest rates for arson cases have hovered around 25 percent in recent years.
People with information about an arson are encouraged to call the Division of Fire Safety's Arson Hotline at 1-800-39-ARSON. A $5,000 reward is available for information leading to an arrest.