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Fires take toll on lives



Published: Tue, May 7, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Last year, arson in the city caused $1.3 million damage in 178 residential fires.

PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

RIVAL DRUG DEALERS DO IT. BATTLING couples do it. Vigilante neighbors do it. Even children playing with matches do it.

It's called arson.

Last year, city firefighters responded to 178 residential fires that were purposely set. Arson loss was set at $1.3 million.

Through April, there have been 55 such fires and the loss is $83,000.

Arson deters business, means higher insurance rates and sometimes kills.

Each year nationwide, arson results in more than 500 deaths and nearly $2 billion in property damage.

"Arson is not a victimless crime" is the theme for this week, National Arson Awareness Week. The idea is to raise consciousness and get people involved in reporting suspicious activity.

Statistics don't always tell the story, said Lt. Alvin Ware, arson bureau commander. Ware talked as he surveyed the damage at 33 E. Lucius Ave. on the South Side where two little girls died Thursday.

Ware expected to learn late today or tomorrow the results of tests done to determine if the fire at the 2 1/2-story house was deliberately set. If so, the crime is arson and double homicide.

A "pour pattern" indicates a flammable liquid may have been poured on the landing at the side entrance where the fire started, reports show. No accidental cause could be determined, investigators have said.

Sometimes, those setting the fire do it as a scare tactic, not thinking that their actions could result in death, Ware said. The arsonist also doesn't consider the danger he puts firefighters in, he said.

Some causes

Firefighters, statistics show, are three times more likely to be injured or killed while responding to arson vs. a nonarson fire.

When the city's time table for demolition of crumbling wide-open vacant houses doesn't satisfy those who live near the rat-infested structures, they can become "vigilante neighbors," Ware said.

"Once it burns, the demolition process steps up and the neighbors know that," he said. They pour gas or paint thinner, then toss a match and run.

When the arson involves juveniles, it's generally a result of horsing around or drug-related gang activity, Ware said. Once in a while, mentally challenged homeless people who stay in vacant houses set them on fire, he said.

Prosecuting arson is difficult, Ware said, because unlike the gun or knife used in a homicide, "our evidence is ashes."

Getting witnesses to talk is a big hurdle investigators must overcome, Ware said. Most don't want to get involved.

Ware lists these steps to reduce arsons:

UIf you know or suspect that an arson has been committed, contact your fire or police department.

UIf you suspect a child is setting fires, it may not be just a phase. Keep matches and lighters away from kids.

UReport suspicious activity near houses and other buildings to police and support neighborhood block watches.

meade@vindy.com




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