By Joe Gorman
The fire department’s chief investigator says the city’s effort to knock down vacant houses has cut into the number of arsons.
Statistics kept by the department show 112 vacant house fires in 2013, a reduction of 50 from 2012.
Capt. Alvin Ware, who heads up the department’s Fire Investigation Unit, said the city’s effort in recent years to cut down on the housing stock by increasing demolition is the prime reason for the reduction in arsons at vacant houses.
Fire Chief John J. O’Neill Jr. said, however, he is taking a wait-and-see approach because one year of a downturn does not mean there is a trend.
“We’ve had years when we dropped 300 runs and then the next year we made up for it and added two [hundred] more,” O’Neill said. “That’s why I don’t trust that stat.”
O’Neill said the city would need a few years of having arsons consistently drop before seeing any kind of effect on the department’s operations.
“One year’s depression [in calls] doesn’t make it consistent,” O’Neill said.
The city has demolished more than 3,500 homes in the last eight years, according to Vindicator files.
The greatest concentration of vacant-house fires has been on the South Side, Ware said. He said investigators find a lot of gang graffiti at those fires, because often new members will be initiated by setting a house on fire.
Ware said there are far more gang-related arsons on the South Side than in any other part of town.
Statistics from the fire department also show the East Side ranks second in vacant-house arsons, followed by the North Side and the West Side.
The number of arsons of occupied homes also dropped from 26 to nine. Ware said there was no reason he could really point to as to why that number went down except to say that a lot of those types of arsons come from domestic disputes.
He said there were no serial arsonists operating in 2013 as there had been in the past, and he also noted that some houses are set on fire three or four times before they are finally burned to the ground or demolished.
Sometimes, neighbors on different streets have been known to set fire to vacant homes because of the blight they bring to the neighborhood, Ware said.
Ware said arson is a hard crime to prosecute because often it occurs at a time when everyone is asleep. He said he tries to go to every block-watch meeting he can warn residents to be on the lookout for suspicious activity around vacant houses.
“It helps to get people involved,” Ware said.
Although the number of car fires that are arson stayed about the same in 2012 and 2013, Ware said the number has decreased drastically from previous years. He said this is because electronic anti-theft devices are making it harder to steal cars.
Most of the department’s car arsons involve cars that have been stolen and are often burned after they have been stripped or abandoned, Ware added.