|Arson and Economic Conditions: Is There a Link?
NFPA Journal® online exclusive, February 2008
By John R. Hall, Jr., Ph.D.,adapted and revised from Hall, Intentional Fires and Arson (PDF, 246 KB) , NFPA, November 2007
The recent wave of home mortgage foreclosures has raised a new variation of the recurring question of whether there is a link between arson and trends in the economy, particularly recessions. In hard times, it is not unusual for local fire officials and insurance adjusters in some communities to report apparent jumps in some types of arson.
People have argued that recessions would be associated with increased numbers of intentional structure fires or intentional fires generally or losses associated with those fires. People have also argued that oil price shocks would be associated with increased numbers of intentional vehicle fires or losses associated with those fires, as owners attempted to get out from under vehicles they could no longer afford to operate.
Since 1980, recessions have dominated four years (1980, 1982, 1990, and 2001). The recessions in 1980 and 1982 have been linked to oil price shocks in 1979. The recession in 1990 has been linked to oil price shocks in the same year. The recession in 2001 has been linked to oil price shocks in 2000. See the two attached tables with structure, vehicle, other and total intentional fires for all currently available years (1980-2005) and for direct property damage in those fires.
None of this analysis precludes the possibility that there have been increases in arson, driven by economics, within particular communities, particular states, or particular industries. All we can say with confidence is that any such increases have not been sufficiently dramatic and widespread to show up clearly in the national statistics.
Each year about half of arson arrests involve juveniles. For the half of arson that is not juvenile firesetting, past special studies have consistently shown that revenge or spite is a more common motive than arson for profit. (Motives are not assessed routinely and are not recorded in any ongoing arson database.) Therefore, even if there were a statistically significant jump in arson for profit, the overall arson figure might not show the jump in measureable form and might even decline, under the influence of other factors affecting other, larger parts of the arson problem, such as juvenile firesetting.
Another variation of the hypothesized link between arson rates and adverse economic conditions is that arson involving businesses would be more likely to occur at the end of the month because this might be seen as necessary to fix up an otherwise dismal balance sheet. An analysis was done to see whether stores and offices had more incendiary and suspicious fires in the last three days of the month than at other times. Data from 1988-92 were used, and at first the answer seemed affirmative: Those days accounted for 10% of the days and 15% of the incendiary fires. On closer examination, this proved to be entirely an artifact of the Los Angeles civil disturbance, which went into the records as nearly 2,000 separate incidents at the end of April 1991. If those days are removed, the other days still account for roughly 10% of the days and now also account for roughly 10% of the fires, meaning there is no higher arson rate at the ends of months.
In particular, the advent of some insurance and other computerized matching database tools has been credited by some investigators with making arson for profit easier to detect and prove.