Arson has declined sharply in the United States during the past 20 years, but it is still so pervasive that an average of more than one church a day is deliberately set afire, authorities say.
In 1994, the year for which the most recent data are available, 520 U.S. churches and related structures were hit by arson or suspicious fires that caused $16 million in property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association. There were 1,420 such fires in 1980.
Church burnings represent a minuscule part of the more than 100,000 buildings set on fire in the United States every year, says the NFPA, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that compiles fire statistics. Arson and suspicious fires cause about 700 deaths and $2 billion in property damage annually.
Statisticians, who don't normally track church arson by race, can't yet say whether the spate of more than 60 fires at black churches in the South since early 1995 may be part of an upward national trend in arson.
Arson experts aren't even sure whether significantly more churches are burning this year -- or whether media attention has heightened awareness of the fires.
"If someone is a little bit predisposed to be an arsonist, they may just target a church because of the attention we're giving it today," said Earl Woodham, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the Carolinas.
But recent church burnings in the rural South diverge from normal patterns in at least two ways: Arson is considerably less frequent in the South, and arson in rural areas normally occurs at only one-fourth the rate of big cities.
The national arson rate in 1994 was 47 incidents per 100,000 population. In the South, the rate was 39 per 100,000; in rural areas, it was only 19.
"Arson at churches has been a problem for a long time," said Patrick Moreland, an executive with the Wisconsin-based Church Mutual Insurance Co., which insures 63,000 houses of worship. "When I came to the company in 1980, we were running an ad with headline that said, 'Arsonists, Thieves and Vandals Go to Church Too.' It's not a new problem, but it's a tragic problem, and what's happening in the South is disgusting."
Mike Vogt, a veteran arson investigator who heads USF&G's National Response Team, said the racial hatred that appears to have motivated some of the black church fires is rare. He said the most common arson motives are revenge, profit and thrill-seeking.
Arson is the only felony committed largely by young people. Youths under 18 accounted for 55 percent of all arson arrests in 1994, the highest rate ever recorded, according to the FBI. Suspects under 25 accounted for seven in 10 arson arrests. Eighty-five percent of those arrested were males. Seventy-five percent were white, 23 percent black.
One theory of arson's decline is that there are fewer young people than when the postwar "baby boomers" came of age. In 1980, 42 million Americans ages 15 to 24 made up 19 percent of the population. That age group now numbers 36 million, less than 14 percent.
While arson has declined, the NFPA says myths about the crime persist. Among them:
"Arson is the fastest-growing crime in America." (Arson is not growing at all, long-term.)
"Arson is hard to solve because it destroys all the evidence." (The portion of arsons cleared by arrest is quite low -- 15 percent to 20 percent -- but it is no worse than for other property crimes for which there are no witnesses.)
"Arson rises in bad economic times." (National statistics don't bear this out.)
Only about 2 percent of set fires result in convictions, and few arsonists serve more than two years in jail.
Pub Date: 6/30/96