C-U combats arson, fewer cases in 2013

By Brittney Nadler

Four arsons have hit Champaign since Aug. 1, although the total number of cases has decreased since last year, said Champaign Fire Marshal John Koller. 

“I don’t know that this is anything unusual, necessarily,” he said. “When we have a cluster of a few close together in the same neighborhood, that’s what really gets our attention as far as how they’re happening.”

Koller confirmed that 16 arsons occurred in Champaign in 2012. Ten fires have been reported so far in 2013, six of which have been determined to be arson. He said the causes of two fires are undetermined, and the additional two fires, which were dumpster and car fires, are not considered to be arson.

Police have apprehended a suspect that they think may be responsible for an arson that occurred at 1107 Lincolnshire Dr. on Oct. 8.

“I think the efforts by Champaign police and Champaign fire have been working so far, and we will continue to pursue anybody that we suspect of having any involvement with this,” Koller said. 

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To combat the arsons, the Champaign Fire Department has been holding weekly meetings and has increased patrol in the neighborhood where many of the arsons have occurred, Koller said. The neighborhood has also formed a neighborhood association.

“If they see something that looks out of place to them, call 9-1-1 and get a police officer down there,” Koller said. “If it happens to be Bob, their neighbor just walking their dog, then so be it. No harm, no foul.”

In Urbana, the number of arsons has dropped from 14 last year to eight this year. Interim Fire Chief Brian Nightlinger believes the decrease is a result of the Urbana Fire Department’s full investigation of every fire reported.

“We’re very active in investigating these cases and prosecuting these cases, so I think if you get a reputation for doing that, people may choose not to (commit arson),” Nightlinger said. “We’ve really had a pretty good year this last year and so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Nightlinger said in many cases of arson, the perpetrator will be going in the opposite direction of the fire, which is not normally done by those who witness a fire.

“Most people, when there’s a fire, will want to see what happens,” he said. “They want to see the fire truck arrive and see the guys put the fire off. A lot of times if an arsonist starts a fire, he’ll be going away from the property, which is really abnormal behavior.”

Champaign Fire Department takes a similar approach to investigating fires. To determine if a fire was deliberately set, Koller said the department employs a systematic approach. The process includes interviewing witnesses and homeowners as well as photographing and investigating the area for sources that could start a fire, such as an extension cord.

“We would go to that area of origin, and then we try to find a point of origin,” Koller said. “We do that through just looking at different items such as burn patterns. Once they figure out where it started, they go to that section and see what was ignited.”

Rene Dunn, Champaign Police Department spokeswoman, said the department is currently not taking interviews.

Brittney can be reached at [email protected].