Closeup/Behavior

Some like it hot

The incendiary boom: arson for fun and profit

June 27 1977
Closeup/Behavior

Some like it hot

The incendiary boom: arson for fun and profit

June 27 1977

Some like it hot

Closeup/Behavior

The incendiary boom: arson for fun and profit

The fire department in Saint John, New Brunswick, was running out of ideas. The problem it faced was arson, and no matter what it did the fire setters were carrying right on with their work. “We tried everything,” laments Fire Chief Percy Clark.

“We even had fire patrols out at night, as well as the police. We have a special arson squad in plain clothes and unmarked cars.

But the problem is still with us, so we’re trying the reward program.”

Saint John is far from alone in its anguish; the crime of arson is grabbing headlines across the continent. A special lawyers’ task force set up in Philadelphia to fight for arson convictions (it’s one of the toughest crimes to prove) says fire setting “is fast emerging as the new big business in commercial crime.” Hard-hit insurance companies are going into communities to offer rewards for information that would convict arsonists. The city of Seattle, plagued by an annual arson loss exceeding three million dollars, instituted an anti-arson reward program in 1975, and its precedent has been followed in recent weeks by Buffalo, New York, and, for the first time in Canada, by Saint John.

Says the harried Chief Clark: “We’ve had such a rush of fires lately I’d have to look up my files to get a number. A lot of these fires are works of vandalism. They’re in vacant lots not covered by insurance, so there’s no fraud involved. They’re often set by young people, aged 16 to 25, with no respect for property. But another problem is the economy of the country as a whole, and it’s the same story from Newfoundland to British Columbia. There are people with a fair amount of insurance, and their business is in trouble.”

Clark is now convinced that the only way to solve the problem is by gaining the cooperation of the public, so a reward system was set up on May 24 with a $5,000 fund provided by the insurance companies. “Whenever we have a fire where we suspect arson, we’ll advertise that there’s a reward available for information leading to a conviction.” Rewards are one part of the new campaign; there’s also a new anti-arson committee coordinating the efforts of the police, fire department, fire marshal’s office, the insurance companies and the building inspectors. It’s looking at such things as regulations covering the demolition of buildings, trying to

This Maclean's National Report was written by Associate Editor Robert Marshall, with the assistance of Elaine Dewar in Toronto and Myron Seith in Montreal.

eliminate any temptation for owners to use fire to guarantee a demolition permit.

From 1966 to 1975 there was an average of 2,899 incendiary (willfully set) fires in Canada, accounting for an average annual loss of $23,655,598. But the loss for 1975 (the latest figures available) was $58,506,755—more than double the average for the 10 years. And the numbers of arson fires identified in the last few years of that decade were significantly up from the average: 5,648 in 1974, 4,964 in 1975. As well, there were almost 10,000 fires with “undetermined causes” in 1975, and many authorities believe a good third of those can safely be attributed to arson.

It’s not just that well-known failed businessman with an eye on his fire insurance policy who is causing the current problem. Thrill-seeking kids with matches are a major part of it, too. Arson is a crime of many levels. There are the “torches,” professionals who will set a fire for a price—fairly rare in Canada but available all the same (“We haven’t reached the point where you have dial-a-fire, but I have no doubt you could make a contact if you really wanted to,” says Tom Speakman, chief of fire investigation for the Ontario fire marshal). Then there are the pyromaniacs, also rare but a considerable problem these days in Montreal, firebugs who get a (usually sexual) thrill out of fires and the attention they attract. There are fires for revenge, or to

hide another crime altogether, or to climax a domestic squabble. But of more concern now, and especially in areas where the economy is not particularly strong, are fires for insurance—troublesome, often hard to prove, white-collar crimes. And finally, there’s the phenomenon of fire vandalism, a major headache for fire fighting officials from coast to coast.

Young kids scramble through the debris of a building under demolition, looking for excitement. They set fire .to a pile of rubble. The flames grow amazingly quickly, the children flee and within minutes the two-storey building is alight from ground to rooftop. The fire, whipped by gusting winds, spreads . . . and keeps on spreading. For hour upon hour it rages, and when it’s finally tamed 150 homes have been destroyed and the bill for damage is more than five million dollars. A fireman’s nightmare, and it happened. A fifth of the mining town of Cobalt in northern Ontario was wiped out on Victoria Day, May 23, by a fire blamed on children.

Art Laing, the fire marshal’s investigator assigned to Cobalt, says there’s no doubt somebody set the fire, and all evidence points to kids who were seen playing where it began. But he hasn’t been able to identify them because over 450 people, their homes razed, have had to leave the area.

The Cobalt fire was unusually bad—a mischief fire that got completely out of hand. But just two weeks earlier, the same thing almost happened in Toronto. A fire that broke out during the early hours of

Mav 9 at an Eaton’s warehouse-store mm-

plex under demolition grew quickly into a major holocaust that for several hours threatened the heart of the city. Blowing cinders set fire to downtown office towers and police had to use helicopters to spot the new outbreaks and direct firefighters. The Eaton’s fire is blamed on unknown “unauthorized persons on the premises.”

Like many fire chiefs, Vancouver’s Armand König thinks the growing fire vandalism problem is a symptom of the changing times. “We’ve got a new society and the kids now are anti-establishment. We had a couple who were involved in 18 different fires, mostly at schools. Kids used to vandalize schools by breaking windows; now they burn them down.” König says there’s no question that arson is a crime that follows the economy. “When this town has had hard times it’s seen a lot of businesses burn down. In the Depression days there was a major arson problem. But in those days kids did what they were told and there wasn’t the vandalism you see today.”

Edmonton’s Chief Louis Day is just back at his desk from an international fire fighters conference in Minneapolis, where arson was a major topic. “Arson is on the rise across the country. Even here, where the economy is not as depressed as in other parts of the country, the trend is up.” Day, too, feels the problem is related to the general citizens’ approach to law and order. “People don't have the concern they used to have. In my own time (as a firefighter) arson was almost always associated with the criminal element; now ordinary citizens try to collect insurance by arson.”

Edmonton has experienced 96 confirmed arson fires up to June this year, compared with 57 for the same period in 1976. Fifteen charges have been laid so far, compared with six last year. Day echoes the authorities across Canada when he says one of the reasons for the higher figures is that “we’re doing a better job of investigating now than we did a few years ago. Our own (city) people investigate every single fire now, often before they’re even under control. Consequently we’re identifying more arson fires.” Meanwhile, he thinks the insurance companies could do more to combat arson. “I might as well be frank. The insurance industry these days almost contributes to arson. There’s not enough control over the issuing of policies, or the pay out.”

If you wanted to design a fire-prone neighborhood, you’d look a long way for a better model than the St. Louis district on the eastern fringe of downtown Montreal. Narrow streets, turn-of-the-century row housing, dozens upon dozens of abandoned homes, debris littering the roads and lanes, and behind most of the houses a ramshackle, highly flammable wooden shed. The run-down appearance advertises St. Louis as a tenant community dominated by absentee landlords with no interest in improving the conditions.

St. Louis has always had fires, but last month was exceptional. While the headlines in Montreal’s papers screamed about the worst outbreak of arson in years, more than 100 families were put out of their homes by 26 fires in a period of just three weeks. Lieutenant Jean-Louis Fourcaudot, head of Montreal’s arson squad, suggests that a few of the fires could have been set because the owners failed to get a demolition permit. But generally, the set fires can be broken down into a third caused by children, a third by pyromaniacs and a third from such motives as revenge, jealousy or insurance fraud.

John Gardiner, a city councillor associated with the Montreal Citizens Movement, the municipal opposition party, says a 10-year study of fires in St. Louis from 1964 to 1973 showed that a quarter were of

criminal or suspect origin, but they accounted for more than half the dollar loss. “One thing you have to expect is that if you light a match in St. Louis, you could do a hell of a lot more damage than if you light a match in (the higher income Montreal districts of) Westmount or the Town of Mount Royal.” Gardiner describes a situation that's common to deteriorating inner cities across North America. “People want to wreck their old houses, but community groups are arguing against demolition, saying these are good homes and should be renovated. So the person abandons his house, barricades it and lets it deteriorate. Then he possibly sets fire to it to have the city tell him to demolish it.”

Some provincial fire investigation authorities—in the fire marshals’ or fire commissioners’ offices—are leery about articles on arson. They don't think it is helpful to point out that arson is occurring at an alarming rate or that, given the present resources, it’s often an enormously difficult crime to prove. Says Nova Scotia’s Fire Marshal Robert Kerr: “I get uptight when we talk about arson. When we talk about it we get it. It’s like waving a red flag.” There’s no such reticence on the part of fire chiefs, who seem to want to promote their communities’ increasing abilities to investigate fires and make life tougher for fire setters. And the Ontario fire marshal’s office, by far the largest in the country with 30 investigators, is guardedly proud of its record. Tom Speakman, the chief of investigation, even points to rising bankruptcy figures in Ontario as a possible indicator of his men’s success: for a failing business the traditional last choice has been between an insurance fire or bankruptcy. “We like to think we’re more efficient now in our investigations so that, even when no prosecutions result, our presence obviously discourages others from having a fire for gain.”

There’s a certain hesitancy to discuss arson at the Insurance Crime Prevention Bu-

reau, an operation established by the insurance industry back in 1923 to help the authorities in their investigation of fires. With arson getting out of hand, “it was a choice of assisting in the investigation or withdrawing from underwriting policies,” says ICPB general manager Patrick Collins. It now has 46 “special agents” in 17 centres across Canada, looking into fires and often presenting evidence at arson trials. Collins says he’d like to see an article “written along the lines that in Canada an arsonist is facing a much tougher investigation system than in other countries.” He points to our unified Criminal Code with tougher penalties for fire setting (up to 14 years) than in parts of the United States; centralized recording of statistics by the Dominion Fire Marshal, backed up by the provincial fire marshals and commissioners; and ever-improving investigative work (assisted, of course, by the ICPB agents).

“Arson seems to be a way of life. It’s almost legitimate. There are people in arson who have no criminal records, who have never had a speeding ticket.” That’s R. E. May, an executive of the International Association of Arson Investigators based in Marlboro, Massachusetts. A U.S. federal official remarks: “This thing [arson] is a billion-dollar business now. It got its impetus at the start of the recession but the recession is no longer the sole reason. This is beginning to gnaw at the underpinnings of the economy, and as soon as Congress realizes this it will act.” As in so many cases, the American experience in arson is more extreme than Canada’s. What Congress could do, in fact, is follow Canada’s lead and centralize its information on arson; increase the penalties for the crime. But even in this preferred position, and with fewer urban wastelands attracting the arsonist’s match, Canadian authorities have a long way to go in their campaign to eliminate the menace. Many fire fighters complain privately that the courts aren’t helping them out. Says a chief from southern Ontario, who asked not to be identified: “When you see firemen in action (at an arson fire) and you go in yourself, putting your life on the line, you look back and you think T could have died.’ It does have an effect, it does make you bitter. In some cases the courts are doing well, they’re handing out fairly stiff sentences. But in other cases they’re too lenient. That’s my opinion as a fire fighter putting my life on the line.” Saskatchewan Fire Commissioner Harvey Atwell complains that the police can “spend hours, days, months preparing an arson case and it’s thrown out by the courts in minutes.” Somehow, through public education, better investigation, more effective court action, by some means, the nation’s fire fighters say, the current trend in arson must be halted. Observes Halifax platoon chief George Grant: “The normal fires are bad enough. We’re strained right to the limit. But when you start throwing in arson ...”