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Arson cases increasing in state

A fire is set about every 6 hours in Florida, making arson the state's fastest-growing, most costly, most under-reported and least-prosecuted crime, a newspaper has reported. Across the country, arson fires are off about 3 percent in the last reported year. Florida, however, saw a 16 percent increase in 1990, when arson killed 112 people, injured 182 others and caused an estimated $28.9-million in damage "Most people who set a fire do so with the expectation they will never get caught," insurance attorney Guy E. "Sandy" Burnette Jr. told the Tampa Tribune .

Nationally, arrests are made in only 15 percent of arson cases and convictions won in under 3 percent. "So you have a 97 percent chance of success," Burnette said. "Those statistics are a national disgrace."

The obstacles in combating arson are identifying the cause of a fire and overcoming the perception that arson isn't a serious offense.

"Arson is the most under-solved crime," said Bernie McCabe, an assistant state attorney in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

For the insurance industry, poor investigations result in fraudulent claims. For plaintiffs' attorneys, payment of legitimate claims are delayed or denied once the case is labeled arson.

Because of the ease of setting fires, training of investigators is the key, according to John O'Keefe, chief fire investigator and regional vice president of the national forensic investigative company S.E.A. Inc.

"It is dangerous to have so many unqualified people out there," he said. "They miss so many arsons and they also accuse people who are not guilty."