Officials say string of apartment fires have little in common

Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 11:30pm
Hickory Woods Apartments, 5319 Nolensville Road

Three makes a trend, but it doesn’t necessarily make a conspiracy.

Recent fires at three Nashville multi-family developments in three days left dozens of people homeless, but it’s not an indication of some widespread problem.

“You know how fires are. They are unpredictable,” said Maggie Lawrence, assistant fire marshal for Davidson County.

Two of the apartment fires struck within 12 hours of each other in south Nashville on Sept. 29. The first, at Chimney Top Apartments, displaced 27 people, and a massive fire just six miles away at Hickory Woods left 23 families homeless.

Despite the difficulty of battling apartment fires and the proximity of these two in particular, Lawrence said there was no problem for the Nashville firefighters forced into action twice on that Wednesday.

“The men were able to rest, to be refurbished and revived,” she said.

Then, two days later, fire struck again — not in Antioch but on Whitland Avenue, when a small fire, contained to just a single unit, burned at Whitland Place Condominiums.

It was less of a conflagration than the other two, but looking at the big picture — the two Antioch fires, plus apartment fires in Hendersonville, Franklin and Hickman County, all in the same week — is unsettling.

There doesn’t appear to be any obvious connection among the fires. There was no firebug flicking matches into apartments, no nefarious landlord crassly displacing tenants in a bid for insurance money.

It’s just a terrible coincidence.

Arson investigators said the fire at Hickory Woods was caused by workers welding pipes to repair an air conditioning system.

The Whitland fire does have a connection to the Franklin apartment fire, but it’s a tenuous one, unless Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man have teamed up in some kind of insurance scam: Both fires were caused by smokers carelessly discarding their cigarettes.

The cause of the Chimney Top fire remains undetermined, but investigators do not suspect arson.

More arson in better economies

That’s not to say Nashville hasn’t had its share of arsons in the past few years.

In November 2009, Robert Sibert was charged with arson after setting a mattress ablaze in his Arbours of Hermitage apartment, destroying 10 apartments and damaging five others.

Franklin resident Keisha Washington was sentenced to 18 years in prison in September for burning her apartment in a scheme to collect on her renters’ insurance.

A blaze at a former publishing house on 24th Avenue is a being investigated as arson.

The conventional wisdom says this should be expected. In times of economic difficulty, property owners and renters alike are looking to get out from underneath bad real estate investments or are hoping the insurance pays off.

But the statistics don’t back that up. In fact, they suggest quite the opposite.

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, there were 73 reported arsons in Davidson County in 2009 — the lowest figure in a decade, at a time when foreclosures were on the rise, home prices were declining and the economy hit rock bottom. In fact, the 2009 number was nearly 50 percent below the 10-year average, and the rate showed a steady decline during the Great Recession, even though much of that downturn was connected to real estate.

That’s no statistical outlier.

In two of the major recessions of the last 30 years — 1991-92 and 2001 — arson rates actually leveled off. During the 1982 downturn rates declined dramatically, according to the FBI.

A study by the National Fire Protection Agency showed that while most people think arsonists are driven by a motivation for money, arson-for-profit represents a relatively small segment of arson cases.

Arson tends to be higher in places with persistent, systemic poverty, according to the agency, rather than areas with short-term money crunches. Arsons are far more likely to be caused by juveniles and vandals rather than property owners — who, for the most part, despite a money crunch, still perceive property as a major investment worthy of protection, no matter how far under water.

That public perception exists, the agency reports, because the media overplays arsons-for-profit, which tend to make sexier stories than out-of-control blazes set by teenage firebugs.

But there is some correlation in arsons and foreclosures specifically, though fires are not necessarily set by property owners.

The American Insurance Association notes that abandoned homes and blighted properties are often targets of vandals or fires caused by squatters, leading to an increase in these particular types of arsons simply because of an increase in these particular types of properties. However, because property owners are often more than willing to be done with a burned building, the fires are classified generally as “accidental” or “suspicious,” rather than specifically as arsons.

Fires more likely in October

While arson isn’t necessarily a special, recession-related problem, fires are more likely to break out, spread and devastate in Nashville for the next few weeks. Historically, October is among the driest and windiest months in Music City and, the fire department’s Lawrence pointed out, the time when heaters, dormant since the spring thaw, are pressed back into service. And air conditioners — ready for dormancy — are serviced, as happened at Hickory Woods.

Apartment fires are among the scariest of all structure fires, and lots of people in confined, connected space increases the chances of injury and death.

Amazingly, despite the property damage and dozens of displaced apartment dwellers, there was only one death in the recent rash of midstate fires: 25-year-old Honduran immigrant Omar Elvin Mendez Sosa, who died in the Franklin fire. Evidence indicates Sosa and his roommates tried to fight the fire themselves before calling 911.

Filed under: City News