Mike Wilkinson and Ron French / The Detroit News
Detroit firefighters have their own name for foreclosed homes: Fuel.
"If there are arsonists looking to torch property for fraud or revenge, there are more opportunities out there," said Detroit Deputy Fire Commissioner Seth Doyle. "Foreclosed homes present a tremendous amount of fuel."
More than the Michigan economy is smoldering. Suspicious fires are increasing across the state, with fire officials saying that some despairing owners are risking prison to get out of debt and vacant, foreclosed homes are being torched by drug dealers and bored teens.
"What's happened is people have gotten so desperate they don't know where to turn," said Mike Coon, a detective with the Sheriff's Department in Clare County, a rural county of 30,000 between Mount Pleasant and Houghton Lake.
Those additional fires are endangering people and property and may lead to higher insurance rates as investigators scramble to keep up with the criminals.
The number of suspicious property fires -- including homes, businesses, cars and boats -- rose nearly 50 percent between 2006 and 2008, reaching 4,895. And those figures -- more than 13 suspected arsons per day -- don't include Detroit, where about a quarter of all Michigan fires occur. Detroit was not included because it has not submitted its 2008 fire data to the state fire marshal's office. The department's own arson data for 2008, though not comparable to other counties, does show a similarly stark increase.
The surge bucks a decades-long decrease in arson fires, and is occurring nearly everywhere from inner-city Detroit to suburban St. Clair Shores to rural Iron County in the Upper Peninsula. Of Michigan's 83 counties, 70 have seen arsons rise, according to the state fire marshal's office.
"It's all financially motivated," said Coon, whose county saw the percentage of fires labeled as arson or suspicious rise from 15 percent in 2006 to 45 percent in 2008.
Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 15 percent, and among the highest rates of foreclosure and outmigration in the nation -- a combination that amounts to an economic Molotov cocktail to frustrated fire investigators.
In 2006, only 10 Michigan counties categorized more than 20 percent of fires as suspicious or arson; in 2008, 56 counties reached that rate and 14 exceeded 30 percent.
In 2008, Detroit recorded 6,486 suspected arsons -- almost 18 a day, and up by roughly 25 percent since 2004, according to the Detroit Fire Department.
With a squad of 21 investigators, "it's physically impossible to investigate them all," said Detroit Fire Arson Chief Gary Victor. "Unless we have the ability to complete an investigation and testify in court that it's arson, then we don't call it arson."
So the department performs a kind of triage, investigating suspicious fires in which there were deaths or injuries first, then working down the priority list through schools, apartment buildings and occupied homes.
Unoccupied structures are at the bottom of the list.
"There's a feeling, talking to investigators around the state, that there is an issue with the number of vacant properties that cannot be sold in the current market or rented, that still have mortgages, taxes and utilities," Victor said.
Vacant homes tend to be torched more frequently, and Detroit has plenty of them; there were more than 90,000 vacant housing units in Detroit in 2007, more than double the number in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. Some of them are apartments in otherwise occupied buildings, but many are single-family homes that have been abandoned during Michigan's ongoing recession.
Vacant homes in inner cities like Detroit, Pontiac and Flint don't stay vacant long: The homeless move into some; drug dealers claim others; street gangs pry open doors and set up shop. Some foreclosed homes end up being torched by rival gangs or drug dealers.
"We're seeing some fraud, some revenge, some to cover a crime," Victor said. "Then you have people who set fires for the excitement."
Many go unpunished
Property losses attributed to arson or suspicious fires rose 30 percent statewide between 2006 and 2008, reaching more than $120 million. Since many arsonists go unpunished, an increase in suspicious fires can lead to an increase in insurance claims, and, ultimately, premiums.
"Arson burns everybody," said Lori Conarton, communications director of the Insurance Institute of Michigan. "Your rates are based on losses. An increase in arson translates into an increase in rates for everybody."
Insurers are spending more to investigate fire claims, too, and that cost is being passed along to property owners.
Nationally, just 18 percent of arson cases result in an arrest. Still, a one-in-five chance of going to prison isn't a good bet for financially troubled homeowners, said Sgt. Dale Hardy, a fire investigator for the Michigan State Police based in Gaylord.
Arson of a dwelling can bring a 20-year prison term; arson of a building, 10 years.
"There are thousands of people in dire straits. They don't burn their homes. They don't burn their cars or boats. They don't jeopardize the lives of firefighters," Hardy said. "It's unfortunate that (some) take this path."
The Detroit arson squad caught two serial arsonists last year and earlier this year broke up an arson-for-profit ring.
The squad now has an accelerant-sniffing dog, and hopes to find grant money to fund a push to decrease home arsons in the same way it focused on car fires earlier this decade, lowering the number of intentionally set auto blazes by about 25 percent.
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