When a fire is intentionally set, it’s a crime and most people naturally think the crime will be solved and the culprit will be caught.
Arson is not that simple. Beloit Fire Department Lt. Keith Lynn said the number of fires set deliberately in Beloit is relatively high, but it can be extremely hard to solve cases.
He said any fire set on purpose is called an incendiary fire, and the proven crime is labeled as arson.
“Arson is done with intent,” Lynn said. “We have to prove the crime, and it’s very hard to prove.” He said although many fires are set deliberately, classifying a case as arson is tricky because a variety of factors must be proven, like motive.
“Lots of cases aren’t taken to trial that should be,” Lynn said. According to Lynn, three key factors must be proven before a fire can be classified as arson: Motive, means, and opportunity. Lynn said the means, or how someone set the fire, is often destroyed in the flames.
“We have a very low conviction rate,” Lynn said.
Solving any arson case is rare, though. Nationally, just 3-7 percent of cases are solved or proven.
Lynn said it’s especially difficult to prove a case of arson because two departments must be involved in the process, and that fire department and police department crossover isn’t always easy.
Lynn said last year about 26 percent of fires in Beloit were incendiary fires, but in past years it’s been as high as 55 percent.
“There are several different motives,” Lynn said. “Insurance fraud is one of the most common.”
Among some other common motives are civil disorder, spite and revenge, gang activity, criminal fraud and curiosity. Lynn said in the past he dealt with a case in which a man robbed houses, and he used only a candle for light. He was trying to see what was in the closet when he lit it on fire, but the fire was contained to the room.
“The fire department gets there fast,” Lynn said. “If it’s a full house fire, either there’s a delay in our response or it was set with something like gasoline.”
Lynn said a lot of evidence from incendiary crimes, even compelling evidence, could still be labeled as “circumstantial” because of the lack of proof.
Lynn said fire dogs help departments get a good start on finding proof of arson. The Beloit Fire Department has a fire dog, Glory, and she is trained to identify accelerants at the scene of a fire.
Each time Glory eats, she is trained with an accelerant.
“The dog is used as a tool to show where there may be trace evidence,” Lynn said. “Some states take the dog’s reaction as testimony in court.”
He said Wisconsin doesn’t allow this, but he thinks it would be beneficial because fire dogs are trained very carefully and accurately.
“If she reacts correctly with an odor, she is rewarded with food and praise,” Lynn said. “When she is training, she must hunt down and find exactly where things are. Otherwise she doesn’t get a reward.”
Glory knows it’s time to work when Lynn puts the “food pouch” on. Lynn demonstrated Glory’s food training, sprinkling gasoline on the ground and on a chair.
“When she knows she found the accelerant, she won’t budge,” Lynn said.
For those who have been following Glory’s journey through the American Humane Association Hero Dog competition, she placed first in her category. She is now in the second round of voting, and Lynn said this is determined 50 percent by voters and 50 percent by a panel of celebrity judges. Lynn and Glory will depart for Los Angeles in late September, and members of the public can continue to vote for Glory until September 7th. To vote, go to herodogawards.org/vote.