Arson in America: Suspicious fires undetected in the Valley

Arson in America is much more common than is reported by the U.S. government, the ABC15 Investigators found in a yearlong national investigation with Scripps Howard News Service , our parent company.

Most building fires are classified as "undetermined" and reported that way to the federal government by local fire departments, some are classified as "accidental," and very few overall are reported as "arson."

Scripps News conducted an audit of arson fires reported in nine sample cities and uncovered an alarming rate of deliberate fires that were not reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System – or NFIRS.

See the national investigation on abc15.com.

Nationwide, we found more than twice as many suspicious fires than the number of arsons reported to the federal government.

That means crimes are going unpunished and all of us are paying the price in rising insurance rates.

In a five year period from 2006-2011, we found more than 160,000 suspicious fires not ruled and investigated as arson. We found almost 800 deaths not investigated as murder and an estimated $5.8 billion in property loss paid out by insurance companies that may include fraud.

PHOENIX FIRE DEPARTMENT LOSES ONE OF THEIR OWN

Firefighter Bret Tarver was 40 years old when he gave his life battling a massive fire at a Phoenix supermarket in 2001.

The fire was classified as "undetermined" at the time by the Phoenix Fire Department . It wasn't until the department received an anonymous tip years later that authorities classified the fire as "arson."

In 2011, Christopher Benitez was convicted of negligent homicide for Tarver's death in the fire.

"It hangs with you like a cloud," said Phoenix Fire Captain and Arson Investigator Gary Hernandez. "It's just never, never finished."

After Tarver's death, Hernandez said he decided to become an arson investigator.

"Knowing that someone intentionally set a fire that led to the death of a colleague," he said, "that kind of drove me to that direction."

He joined a unit that now represents the gold standard in arson investigations. Arson investigators for the Phoenix Fire Department are sent to the police academy and train as criminal investigators. They can write warrants and make arrests and work closely with Phoenix Police.

Those standards went into effect when Fire Marshal Jack Ballentine took over the unit six years ago.

"Their training goes on and on," Ballentine said. "It's a flip flop between Fire and the criminal side and we are always merging those two so that they continue to get better and more proficient at what they are doing."

2,039 ADDITIONAL SUSPICIOUS FIRES

While Ballentine says the numbers are improving, our investigation found the Phoenix Fire Department reported only 393 fires as arson to the federal government from 2006 until 2011.

The ABC15 Investigators and Scripps News worked with Realty Trac , a mortgage monitoring firm, to determine the number of suspicious fires that occurred in foreclosed homes nationwide.

Add in fires that happened in vacant buildings and buildings that had multiple fires happen in the same building – sometimes on the same day – and the numbers were even higher.

Our investigation found, during the same five-year period in Phoenix, an additional 2,039 suspicious fires that were not ruled as arson.

One issue are the rules themselves. Arson investigators follow a national set of guidelines to determine the cause of a fire – even if their gut tells them something else.

According to those standards, "if you cannot eliminate all other causes, you have to call it undetermined," Ballentine said.

But he also recognized, "half of those undetermined [cases] are most likely arson."

‘GROSSLY UNDERREPORTED'

Our findings are more in line with what many experts think the national arson rate should be, including the president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals Bill Degnan.

"Arson is grossly underreported," Degnan said. "I believe the rate of arson in America is somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent, in that range."

According to Degnan, one of the reasons arson is underreported, both here and nationwide, is fire departments don't update their data once the cause of a fire is found. The second reason: They don't want to be wrong.

"The fire service takes a lot of pride in what they do. And I think they would rather put down 'undetermined' versus calling it and have somebody come in later and say that they were wrong," Degnan said.

Degnan warns that underreporting arson means policymakers are not allocating enough money and manpower to fight the problem.

But for Ballentine, the standard for conviction can never be too high.

"There's nothing more precious than our freedom," he said.

"And if we are taking somebody's freedom away from them, we better be ready to stand up to that."

REPORT CALLS FOR REFORM

The National Association of State Fire Marshals has been studying the problem and just released a report citing the findings of our national investigation and calling for significant reforms.

Check back with ABC15.com/Investigators for more on the changes to come.

Thomas Hargrove, National Correspondent at Scripps Howard News Service, contributed to this report.

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