Arson fires underreported in American cities, including San Diego

SAN DIEGO - A Team 10 and Scripps News investigation found arson fires are not investigated properly in many American cities -- including San Diego -- due to a chaotic patchwork of reporting systems and standards.

Many deliberately set building fires are not reported to the federal government. 

Nationally, just 5 percent of all residential building fires are intentionally set, according to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.  Data collected by Scripps News suggests the national arson rate to be significantly higher.

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"Arson has historically been under reported across the nation," said San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainer. "It's underreported here as well.  I'm confident in my career there were fires that were likely arson that I was unable to identify."

Since 2007, San Diego has had 943 fires according to data submitted by San Diego Fire and Rescue Department.  Seventy were determined to be intentionally set by the department.  San Diego's rate of reporting arson is slightly higher than the national average.  It is seven percent.

A Team 10 investigation found that since 2007, 42 properties in San Diego had both a fire and were in foreclosure. Four of the properties had a fire occur within 25 days of the foreclosure. None were determined to be arson.

Mainer called those fires suspicious.

"The majority of all fire agencies do not investigate probably half their arsons,” said veteran arson investigator and trainer Ed Nordskog.  “They don't even go to the scene.”

Nordskog has authored two books about investigating arson.  He also trains international fire investigators.

He said arson is grossly underreported.

"Forty to 50 percent of all fires are incendiary or arson, you know criminal intent fires," Nordskog said.  "Arson investigators should be held to a higher standard."

In addition to public safety, fire investigators said another big issue is how underreported arson affects insurance rates.  If a fire is not determined to be intentional, many times an insurance company covers the damage.  The more insurance companies pay out, the higher rates are for everyone buying insurance.

Nordskog and Mainer said the main reason arson is underreported is because of a lack of training, lack of money and lack of confidence among fire investigators.  They say firefighters worry they'll make the wrong call.

Nordskog said he is convinced arson is more common because accidental fires are much more difficult to start than ever before -- with more fire retardant used on household items and fewer smokers.

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