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Rough market may spur more arsons
Official: Intentional fires this year have surpassed 07 number
Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle revisits the scene of a burned home on Ransom Free Road that officials suspect was arson. The county has had five intentionally started house fires so far this year.

As the economy slides, homes and businesses burn.

Hall County already has more intentionally set arson fires this year than in all of 2007, including three in the Clermont area within a six-week period. Gainesville fire officials say the causes of a pair of million-dollar-plus homes that burned this year remain undetermined, and at least one is suspicious. And a South Hall motorcycle shop owner was arrested in January, accused of hiring a man to torch his business in order to collect $500,000 in insurance.

In the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, foreclosures, failing businesses and empty houses have created a spike in arson numbers nationally, officials say, whether it’s from those looking for an insurance bailout or vandals covering up their crimes after burglarizing a house left vacant and unsold. Numbers from the FBI show suburban arsons were up 4 percent in 2006, the last year in which figures were available. An increase is expected again for 2007, when more foreclosures occurred.

"Nationally, we are definitely seeing that trend, and there’s a concern we might start seeing it in Georgia," state Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner John Oxendine said Friday. "It appears we are right on the early edge. It’s something my arson investigators and law enforcement officers across the state are concerned about."

This week, local officials announced a reward of up to $10,000 from the state’s Arson Control Board for information about three arson fires set in Clermont between mid-February and late May. Two houses on H. White Road and one house on nearby Ransom Free Road burned, destroying two of the homes and causing $420,000 in damage.

Hall County Fire Marshall Scott Cagle said all three fires are arson, though the methods of ignition were different in the H. White Road blazes.

In the May 24 Ransom Free Road arson, "there were multiple points of origin," leading investigators to believe it is not connected to the other nearby fires, Cagle said.

Hall County has had five arson fires so far this year, compared with four in 2007, five in 2006 and one in 2005.

In the biggest arson case, 41-year-old Philip Hall, owner of the Professional Twin V motorcycle shop on McEver Road, was charged with hiring 53-year-old Alan Kilgore to burn his business for an insurance payout.

The motives of arson vary, Oxendine said, though insurance fraud usually tops the list.

"It can be vengeance, it can be to cover up another crime or it can be for economic gain," Oxendine said.

Empty houses — two of the three that burned in Clermont were awaiting buyers or renters and the third was under construction — can be targets for thieves or vagrants, Cagle said.

"People are still going into vacant houses and stealing copper wiring and then setting fires to cover them up," Cagle said. "It’s a concern for us when houses sit vacant."

And with a housing market in the dumps, more houses are empty. Cagle said he wants to start encouraging owners to board up houses that are vacant to prevent easy entry.

James Quiggle, director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, said fraud often spikes when the economy turns south.

"There are increasing numbers of warning flares around the nation suggesting a potential spike in home arsons by homeowners who are desperate to avoid foreclosure by seeking a quick insurance bailout," Quiggle said.

Quiggle said it will take several more months before the latest statistics indicate how decisive the fraud trend is.

"But without a question, insurance investigators are on high alert," he said.

Cagle said insurance investigators work closely with fire officials in major structure fire cases where the cause is in question. Private insurance companies have vast scientific and forensic resources at their disposal that are not always available to public safety officials, he said.

Fire investigations could easily cost taxpayer-funded fire departments $2,000 to $5,000 per case, an expense that is not feasible for an agency that investigates scores of fires, Cagle said.

"We rely heavily on insurance companies because of the resources they have available," Cagle said.

Insurance investigators, state fire marshal’s investigators and Gainesville fire officials on Friday continued to sift through the rubble of a $1 million home on Hickory Hills that burned to the ground a week earlier. Gainesville Fire Marshal Jerome Yarbrough said the cause of the fire, which may have destroyed another $1 million in contents, remains undetermined.

The owners were not at home when it burned in the early morning hours June 13.

"We’re not calling it arson, but it is suspicious," Yarbrough said. "The time frame for the amount of area that burned was a little faster than normal."

The cause of a February fire that did an estimated $1 million in damage to a nearly completed $2 million home on Riverside Drive also remains undetermined, Yarbrough said.

Anyone with information about the Clermont or Hickory Hills fires is asked to call 800-282-5404.