REYNOLDSBURG — While at least three local fires from earlier this summer remain under investigation by the Ohio Division of State Fire Marshal and local fire and law enforcement agencies, Tim Spradlin, the chief of the SFM’s Fire and Explosion Investigation Bureau, said SFM fire investigations have increased not just in Knox County, but throughout Ohio.
“We’re seeing that statewide. This calendar year there’s been a 35 percent increase in requests for investigation by us,” Spradlin said of investigations conducted statewide by his office during the first seven months of 2009 versus the statistics from 2008.
Although there has not been an official determination whether any of the recent local fires were intentionally set, Spradlin said that statewide, there is also a 35 percent increase in the number of fires determined by SFM investigators to be caused by arson.
According to statistics compiled by the SFM, between Jan. 1, 2008, and July 25, 2008, the office investigated 640 fires and determined 210 to be arson fires.
From Jan. 1 to July 25 of this year, the number of fires jumped to 796, with 279 thus far ruled arson.
“That may be a coincidence because we’re investigating more fires,” Spradlin said of the increase in both statistics.
When asked if the statewide increase in the number of foreclosures has a bearing on the increase in arson fires, Spradlin said financial motive is just one of the factors considered during an arson investigation.
Spradlin said the seven most frequently determined motives for arson are profit, fraud, revenge, malicious damage and vandalism, excitement and gratification, crime concealment, and extremism, such as religious fanaticism.
“Arson is a violent crime; fire is a dangerous weapon,” Spradlin said, adding that sometimes perceived as a victimless crime when an empty building is deliberately set on fire, every structure fire poses dangers to firefighters and the public.
Spradlin said more dollars are lost to arson each year in this country than to any other crime. Yet it is the least prosecuted of all crimes, said Spradlin, which can be frustrating to investigators.
Determining if and how a fire was set and by whom can be a long, complicated process. Although the initial investigative work at the scene is completed quickly, the next phases of the investigation can take months or years.
“The site work is normally done in a couple of days,” Spradlin said of the photographs, diagrams and laboratory samples obtained at a fire scene.
Although the SFM forensic laboratory in Reynoldsburg has an average turnaround of seven to 14 days, some lab testing for accelerants and explosives can take from two to six weeks to be completed. Toxicology tests performed by medical examiners on victims of fatal fires can take up to 12 weeks to resolve.
The completion of interviews by investigators can take even longer. Spradlin said follow-up interviews, polygraphs and Computer Stress Voice Analyzer testing may all be a part of the intense process.
“One interview can lead to two more,” Spradlin explained. “People move away from the area and we have to locate them, they may evade our calls, or we may have to conduct extensive surveillance.”
Spradlin said the public needs to remember fire investigation is a dynamic science which can change every time there is a major fire case.
“CSI and television are fantasy,” Spradlin said of the myth regarding the quick and tidy completion of complicated forensic investigations.
In real life, many agencies cooperate during an investigation, including the SFM, local fire departments, insurance companies, and local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Some of the parties involved, such as an insurance carrier, may have a vested financial interest in the investigation, Spradlin said. The SFM investigations bureau represents only the public’s interest in whether a crime has been committed.
There are four possible determinations regarding the cause of a fire, according to Spradlin; incendiary or set fires, accidental such as in the case of an electrical fire, natural such as a fire started by a lightning strike, and undetermined, where a cause can not be pinpointed.
“Undetermined is not a bad finding,” said Spradlin.
Nor, he explained, does it mean the case is closed.
“Sometimes they come back a year or two later where they will give us information that will lead to an arrest,” he said.
Last year, state investigators determined that in 412 of 1,275 fires investigated, arson was the cause. There were 719 charges filed against 173 individuals. To date, 37 of those people have been convicted.