California is reeling from the devastating wildfires popping up across the state. The City of Los Angeles has seen its own recent disturbing fire-related trend: an increase in the number of reported arsons.
These are happening in many different settings. Not only are homes a frequent place of attack, but people are also setting intentional fires in tool sheds, at businesses and even at schools.
In the first eight months of 2020, there were 393 arson incidents in the city, up 41% from the same period last year, according to Los Angeles Police Department data. There were 419 reports for the entirety of 2019. That was already a 17% jump from 2018. The low point in the last decade was 2014, when there were 300 cases of arson.
Steady increase in arson reports, 2020 vs. 2019, Jan. 1 – Aug. 31
Fires of all types also increasing
Peter Sanders, the public information director at the Los Angeles Fire Department, said the increase in fires is not limited to arson. The city has seen a rise in trash, building and vehicle blazes.
From Jan. 1 – Sept. 9, the LAFD recorded 7,422 fires, a 42% increase over the 5,223 fires reported in the same period last year. Sanders could not specify how many of these were arson-related, as LAFD data is different than that used by the police department.
The National Fire Protection Association classifies an incident as arson when the person who starts the fire intends to cause harm and there is criminal intent.
Downtown saw the greatest number of arson incidents during the first eight months of the year, with 36 cases reported to the LAPD. That’s a 28.5% increase from the 28 reports during the same time last year. Hollywood had 17 incidents.
Arson reports in Los Angeles, 2010-2019
Arson sparked by homelessness?
Van Nuys recorded 13 arson incidents during the first eight months of the year, up from four during the same time in 2019. Mike Browning, vice president of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, said, “We had major fires that were homeless-related.”
He pointed to a blaze that erupted in a five-story vacant building on Nov. 24 of last year in the 7100 block of Sepulveda Blvd.
Browning said the coronavirus pandemic has restricted the neighborhood watch that operates in the community, but said with safer-at-home measures being relaxed, community patrols are increasing, partly with an aim to prevent future fires.
Indeed, homelessness jumped 16.1% in the city just this past year, meaning that more people without shelter are crowding freeway underpasses, hillsides and vacant lots.
Rich Meier is the principal of Meier Fire Investigation, which offers a range of fire and explosion investigation services. He said people experiencing homelessness do cause fires on the street and sidewalk, but cautioned against the possibility of labeling these types of incidents as arson.
“There should maybe be some amnesty for people who start fires that get out of hand accidentally,” he said, adding, “But if someone is living on the streets and they are trying to cook, it’s not the same as someone doing something like a gender-reveal party and causing a wildfire.” (The El Dorado fire currently raging in the San Bernardino National Forest was ignited by a gender-reveal party.)
Arson incidents have been reported in a variety of locations. In one instance Downtown, a person experiencing homelessness set a fire at a Seventh Street department store at 4:38 pm on Jan. 7, according to LAPD data. On the night of July 6, another person experiencing homelessness intentionally started a fire at a police facility at 9:45 pm in the 200 block of E. 6th St. Investigations are continuing for both.
Under the California penal code, all incidents of arson are treated as felonies. A public information officer with the LAPD said fires set intentionally on streets and sidewalks are handled on a case-by-case basis.
Arson reports by neighborhood
Economic stress and fires
Meier also noted that periods of economic stress often lead to increased reports of arson, as people struggling with mortgages or other debts sometimes light fires to their property to collect an insurance payment. But he also said there are plenty of more mundane reasons for arson.
“I had a case a few years ago where a girl was mad at an ex-boyfriend and set a fire in an apartment building that led to one person being hurt,” he said.
From Jan. 1 – Aug. 31, 25% of the reported arson incidents in the city were on the street or sidewalk. Another 21% were at a single-family home or apartment complex, and nearly 8% were at a business.
*An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the fire sparked by a gender-reveal party.
How we did it: We examined LAPD publicly available data on reported incidents of arson from Jan. 1, 2010 – Aug. 31, 2020, compared with the previous year. For neighborhood boundaries, we rely on the borders defined by the Los Angeles Times. Learn more about our data here.
In making our calculations, we rely on the data the LAPD makes publicly available. On occasion, LAPD may update past collision reports with new information, or recategorize past reports. Those revised reports do not always automatically become part of the public database.
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