DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — As the economy worsens, state fire marshals are seeing more buildings and vehicles going up in smoke.
State Fire Marshal John Dean said Thursday he has noticed more mention in his investigators’ reports of vacant buildings or buildings under foreclosure and vehicles that have burned for no reason other than to collect on insurance.
“I think a lot of crimes are related to the economy,” Dean said. “When people are losing jobs, they become angry so you get robberies, assaults, domestic violence, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and arson. They feel trapped. People who normally wouldn’t do something like that are desperate and think they can get away with it.”
So far this year, the State Fire Marshal’s Office has had 134 confirmed incendiary, or arson, fires representing $8 million worth of property, according to Assistant State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas. The department also has an additional 52 incidents or fire scenes either under investigation or ready to be investigated, he said. Of the 52, 26 were reported in the past three weeks and Thomas expects more before year’s end, he said.
In comparison, the state had 116 confirmed incendiary fires that totaled $7.6 million worth of property in 2006, and there were 130 confirmed cases in 2007 involving property totaling $4.6 million, Thomas said.
Thomas said the State Fire Marshal’s Office has northern, central and southern divisions, and those offices are served by one supervisor and four investigators.
The investigators average 500 incidents a year from accidental fires to those that wind up being undetermined because the damage is so significant, according to Thomas.
“I expect to see those numbers going up,” he said. “Fire service usually winds up probably a year behind the economy; as the economy goes bad, people don’t automatically start losing their property or trying to get out from under it using various instruments like arson. It usually takes some time. The more people get destitute in their circumstances, the more likelihood of something like this happening exists.”
Early on, when gasoline and fuel costs were high, fire and private insurance officials were worried about “walkaway landlords” of apartment houses, Dean said. If those landlords couldn’t afford to heat their apartment houses, they wouldn’t heat them and then the tenants would move out, leaving a worthless building that suddenly burns, he said.
Just as important are those fires that are accidental, according to Dean. He said there have been a couple of fatal fires involving wood stoves or gas heaters that ignited clothing.
“We seem to be getting more, bigger fires,” Dean said. “We’re plenty busy with routine fires but we’ve had some larger ones more frequently than normal.” Those larger fires included blazes in South Paris and Milo. While the South Paris fire was easy to solve, the Milo fire has taken time, Dean said. It’s critical that every piece of evidence is gathered to bring prosecution, he said.
That statement was echoed by Penobscot and Piscataquis County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy, who praised the state investigators he deals with.
“So far as central and eastern Maine is concerned, because we have such high-quality investigators, people are taking a big risk when they choose to commit an insurance arson because there’s a fairly good likelihood they’re going to get caught and end up going to jail,” Almy said Thursday.
Almy is concerned that Gov. John Baldacci may be forced to cut back on law enforcement spending, which would give criminals a better chance of success.
“This economy is fertile ground for any number of fraud situations. Whether it be insurance fraud, arson fraud, or just plain stealing, that’s going to be the case,” Almy said.
So, he said, it’s important to keep Maine law enforcement agencies fully funded.