ARSON fires are on the rise in Toledo, the flames fueled by slow home sales, increasing numbers of foreclosures, and lost jobs that have resulted in more abandoned and boarded-up houses across the city. There may be more the city, mortgage companies, and neighborhoods can do to dampen the blaze.
According to figures compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were 510 arson fires in Toledo in 2009, up from 447 in 2008, a jump of 14 percent. Nearly half of last year's arson fires were in vacant buildings, and almost 61 percent of those fires were intentionally set, according to the Toledo Fire Department.
In 2001, only 16 percent of fires in vacant buildings were set on purpose. But there were many fewer vacant houses then, meaning fewer temptations for people who see an abandoned home as a pyrotechnic opportunity.
People set fire to vacant buildings for many reasons. Some want to play the hero, alerting neighbors and the fire department.
For others, the flames satisfy a psychological craving. Some fires are set by people, often teenagers, with nothing better to do and little sense of the potential consequences of their actions.
Other fires are set for revenge or to hide illegal activity. And some fires, of course, are accidental.
However they get started, they pose a significant danger to neighbors as well as to the firefighters who have to put them out. In 1999, for example, six firefighters with the Worcester (Mass.) Fire Department were killed while fighting a blaze in an abandoned warehouse that started when two homeless people living there knocked over a candle.
Vacant homes are a playground for children, a refuge for homeless people, a treasure trove for urban miners who strip them of fixtures, wiring, and plumbing, and a place for criminals to hide their activities. Boarding them up does little to keep people out.
The ideal solution would be for mortgage providers to do more to keep people in their homes. Restructuring loans for struggling homeowners would reduce arson opportunities and other crimes, as well as help maintain surrounding property values.
Failing that, Toledo officials must aggressively pursue property owners who fail to maintain vacant properties. Neighbors must be vigilant in reporting unusual activity in or around empty buildings.
Don't let negligence fan the flames.
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