The number of fires that were intentionally set in the city fell 17% last year, with the 879 arsons recorded by the Los Angeles Fire Department down from the 1,062 cases in 2020.
Yet there is a smoking undercurrent to the positive trend: The 2021 total represents a 13% increase over the 776 arson incidents in 2019.
Los Angeles Police Department statistics differ from the LAFD numbers, but also show that more fires are being set than before the pandemic. That’s because not every arson call that the fire department responds to ends up as a police report.
From 2010-2018, the LAPD recorded between 300 and 412 arson incidents annually. The department recorded 419 cases in 2019, and the total surged in the pandemic year of 2020 to 653 cases. The figure declined slightly in 2021, to 624 arson reports.
According to the LAFD, there were 18,161 fire responses in the city in 2021 (the figure includes accidental and undetermined blazes), with 5% classified as arson. The total is up from the previous year’s 16,129 fire responses, and is a 51% increase from 12,028 in 2019.
“Since 2019, the LAFD has witnessed a steady increase in the number of fire and medical responses,” said LAFD Public Information Officer Erik Scott.
Scott said the rise in fire responses reflects a national trend. The American Red Cross reported that in the first three months of 2021, there were 16% more home fires in the United States than in the same period in 2020.
The California penal code classifies an incident as arson when someone starts a fire with malicious intent. The crime is considered a felony.
Burning in downtown
Rich Meier, the principal expert of Meier Fire Investigation, a nationwide firm that conducts a range of fire and explosion investigative services, said the economic downturn has contributed to the rise in intentionally set fires.
“When people are losing their jobs, when they’ve signed up on mortgages, and when they feel like they’ve run out of hope and options, the number of fires to collect insurance money unfortunately goes up as well,” Meier said.
According to publicly available LAPD data, there were more recorded arsons in Downtown than any other Los Angeles neighborhood last year. The 62 reports far exceeded the number of incidents in Hollywood (25), Westlake (24), Hyde Park and Panorama City (18 each).
One reason for the high number of reports in Downtown is the tent encampments in and around Skid Row. News stories have chronicled fires set intentionally as means of retaliation following a dispute.
According to Estela Lopez, executive director of the Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District, there were at least 62 tent fires in Skid Row in December alone. She said that while many are accidental, perhaps the result of heaters or people cooking meals, some are retaliatory.
“If your boyfriend gets mad at you, he burns down your tent. If you have a dispute with someone, they burn down your tent,” she said.
Of the arson cases recorded by the LAPD in 2021, 20% took place on the streets. Another 8% of arsons were on sidewalks.
“All of the fires in our district are on the street, and they are all encampments,” said Lopez.
Although the number of arson incidents fell last year, according to the LAFD there were more arrests, with 188 in 2021, up from 186 the year before and 130 in 2019.
Since 2021 began, there has been a new slate of attention-grabbing arson incidents. A BMW went up in flames in Downtown in a crime that investigators classified as arson. In Venice, a suspect was arrested after a series of trash cans were set on fire.
How we did it: We examined publicly available arson data from the Los Angeles Police Department from 2010-2021, as well as data from the Los Angeles Fire Department. For neighborhood boundaries, we rely on the borders defined by the Los Angeles Times. Learn more about our data here.
LAPD data only reflects crimes that are reported to the department, not how many crimes actually occurred. In making our calculations, we rely on the data the LAPD makes publicly available. LAPD may update past crime 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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