“I have investigator Josh Hobbs currently looking into an arson fire at 166 Crull St. in West Portsmouth,” said Ken Crawford, assistant chief for the southeastern district of the state fire marshal's office. “About two weeks ago, there was a car fire at that location, the home of Christopher and Annette Fields, and it spread to the carport. Now, at around 5:30 p.m. last Friday, their house was set on fire.”
Three other Scioto County fires in the last month are being treated as suspected arsons: 1804 Ohio 139 in the Eden Park area, 3735 Gallia St. in New Boston and 1347 12th St. in West Portsmouth. Investigation of a fire at Scioto Furnace United Methodist Church, 191 Great Meadow Road, on Aug. 18 resulted in the arrest of Jonathan Rawlins, of Portsmouth.
Arson investigations are an ongoing process in the area. Hobbs is one of 17 arson investigators in the state.
“I have a current case load of about 100 fires to investigate. There's never a lack of work,” he said. “You have to go in and determine if it is arson, then start gathering evidence. You then present the evidence to the prosecutor, who decides if he wants to indict. And then the investigator testifies before a grand jury, followed by testifying in court, so it's an ongoing job.”
Arson in Scioto County was on the increase in 2005. Statistics from the state fire marshal's office show 60 structure arsons, 21 involving vehicles and 39 outside in 2005, for a total of 120 arson fires with a total loss of $1,054,550. There were 98 arson cases in 2004 and 61 in 2003.
Hobbs said 45 to 50 possible arson fires have been investigated so far this year.
“These numbers fluctuate from year to year, so you never know how it will be,” said Crawford. “What people need to know is that just because we are called in to a suspicious fire doesn't necessarily mean it will be an arson scene.”
Crawford says his department is now seeing more violent arson cases.
“People setting fires in occupied dwellings, fires set with no regard for human life - these are usually fires of vengeance, or just plain anger, sometimes (over) a break-up in a relationship,” he said. “I have been in this business for 30 years and I have come to believe that under the right set of circumstances, everybody is capable of setting a fire.”
Someone who sets a fire with people in the house may face many different charges.
“We will charge them with aggravated murder for everyone who dies in the fire and for every person who was in the dwelling. We will file aggravated arson charges against the arsonist, as well as a count of arson for each apartment in a building,” Crawford said.
Shane Cartmill, public information officer for the fire marshal's office, said he is surprised at how lightly people take setting fires.
“There were some students setting couches on fire at Ohio State University and they couldn't see the big deal in it. Every fire is a potential disaster,” he said.
Cartmill and Crawford agreed that those charged with arson are from every part of society.
“I have charged people as young as 6 all the way up to an 80-year-old grandmother,” said Crawford.
Crawford said it takes nearly $50,000 to train and equip an investigator and the training is rigorous.
“It's continuous training, and with our involvement with homeland security now, we have even more in-depth training,” he said. “An investigator has to have five years investigative experience and 600-plus hours of training. And even if we hire someone new who already has fire investigating experience, they have to go through our training program just like everyone else.”
Investigators in the state fire marshal's office use a computerized mapping system through 18 satellites and global positioning system equipment to electronically map out the scene, Crawford said. And he said the local lab processes evidence within seven to 10 days, much faster than the average national lab's 18-day time frame.
Crawford said the sooner an investigator arrives on the scene of a possible arson, the more likely it is the cause of the fire will be determined.
While members of the fire marshal's team say there is probably no clear-cut way to prevent an arson, there are steps people can take to lower the chances of their home catching fire by other means.
“Did you know that 80 to 90 percent of homes don't have a working smoke detector?” said Cartmill. “If you add one smoke detector to your home, your chances of not dying in a fire go up 50 percent. People should also plan for fires and work out an alternate exit from their home. Another thing they can do is keep their home clutter-free.”
Anyone with information about a suspected arson fire can call the state fire marshal's tip line at (800) 589-2728.
“No matter how insignificant the person may think their tip is, it's all part of the information needed in the investigation,” Crawford said. “And it doesn't matter how long it has been, five hours or five years, we need all the help the public can provide.”
FRANK LEWIS can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232.