DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – Arson is a raging epidemic in Detroit, where vacant buildings burn faster than the city can demolish them, and is among the major lingering challenges the city faces following its emergence from bankruptcy, according to a newspaper report published after months of research.

Detroit last year had 3,839 suspicious fires and demolished 3,500 buildings, according to a report in The Detroit News . The newspaper reviewed records of more than 9,000 suspicious fires from 2010 to mid-2013 and found that arson has decimated the city’s northeast, southwest and far west sides.

“Nothing burns like Detroit,” Lt. Joe Crandall, a Detroit Fire Department arson investigator, told the newspaper.

Credit: Vickie Thomas/WWJ Newsradio 950

Credit: Vickie Thomas/WWJ Newsradio 950

Homeowner’s insurance in Detroit is at least double the state average because of arson, while the city last year spent $3.5 million to demolish at least 247 homes that have caught fire since 2010, the newspaper said. Last year, 17 people died from intentionally set fires.

“People don’t realize arson is a felony. They think it’s just a crime against the insurance company,” said Lori Conarton, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute of Michigan, an industry group that funds anti-arson efforts. “It’s a crime against all your neighbors.”

More than 1,000 blocks in Detroit had two or more suspicious fires in 2010-2013. In all, property damage from arson cost the city and Wayne County about $248 million in 2013, according to estimates from the Michigan Arson Prevention Committee, a nonprofit funded by insurance companies to discourage arson.

“Arson is like a cancer,” said Louisa Papalas, the only Wayne County assistant prosecutor assigned to handle arson cases. “Once one home is set on fire, if it’s left to stand, it spreads from one house to the next. Pretty soon, there are one to two viable homes on the block.”

The report indicates that the vast majority of homes that burned from 2010 to 2013, at least 66 percent, have yet to be demolished. The Delray community in southwest Detroit had the highest per-capita rate of suspicious fires, with 89 reported during that timeframe.

Arson Chief Charles Simms said the city is making progress in its long struggle with arson. Removing vacant houses will eliminate targets for arsonists, he said, and the city’s bankruptcy plan frees money for blight efforts and boosting the city’s arson squad.

This year, the squad expects to hire four investigators, bringing its total to 14. Detroit has the nation’s highest arson rate, but the number of suspicious fires declined 14 percent last year, records show. The majority of suspicious fires are believed to be intentional, Simms said.

“I am optimistic we’re making big changes,” said Simms, who took office last year.

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