Toledo has the unpleasant distinction of leading the state in arson fires. From 2009 to 2012, our city reported more annual arson cases than any other community in Ohio.
More frustrating, Toledo fire officials cannot pinpoint why arson is so common here. Arson trends fluctuate wildly by the manner, location, and even time of year in which fires are set, offering investigators few clues about the crimes.
Intentional blazes are set for a variety of reasons, including insurance fraud, revenge, vandalism, and simple mischief, said Lt. Matthew Hertzfeld, spokesman for the Toledo Fire Department. Fire officials annually submit arson totals to the FBI, including fires set to garages, sheds, automobiles, and buildings.
“There are people who just don’t think it’s that big of a deal to start a fire for kicks, or because of lovers’ quarrels, or marital problems,” Lieutenant Hertzfeld told The Blade’s editorial page. “We’ve seen just about all the varied reasons why, none of which make sense. Sometimes you look for the answer and can’t find it.”
Toledo’s arson plague demands a community response. City officials, businesses, and citizen groups must join to promote public vigilance against arson.
Detroit has controlled its annual arson spree around Halloween — known as Devil’s Night — because of extra eyes and ears. Similarly, Toledo must create a daily and nightly cross-city watch to help stop harmful firebugs.
Arson is a heinous and cowardly crime. Arsonists endanger the lives of those around them, and of city firefighters. Toledoans are all too familiar with the pain and loss that is felt when firefighters are killed in the line of duty.
On Jan. 26, Toledo firefighters Stephen Machcinski, 42, and James Dickman, 31, died battling a blaze at a North Toledo apartment building. The building’s owner, Ray Abou-Arab, 61, faces arson and murder charges.
There have been only a relative handful of people prosecuted for arson in Toledo in recent years, despite the 500 or so annual cases. Last year, 27 people were charged, while 23 were prosecuted in 2012, the Lucas County Prosecutor’s office says. It should not take a death for prosecutors to declare arson a priority.
Investigators often need the help of people who witness suspicious activity, especially if physical evidence is destroyed in an arson fire. But Lieutenant Hertzfeld said residents are often reluctant to come forward to help secure arrests — another reflection of the destructive “stop snitching” culture.
City officials must continue to give the fire department the staffing and other resources it needs to do its job adequately. The department has three investigators, along with firefighters who are trained to help with arson investigations. The department also has a task force that investigates fires that cause commercial and high-dollar losses, as well as blazes that lead to multiple deaths.
The fact that arson occurs so frequently in Toledo, often with no apparent reason, should push city officials and neighborhood leaders to work more diligently to find solutions. This is not the time for Toledoans to shrug their shoulders or throw up their hands in frustration, but to roll up their sleeves and get to work.