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Arson Awareness Week Begins

by: Emergency Information Media Affairs

WASHINGTON May 4, 1998 - Every year, America's youth deliberately ignite more than half of the arson fires in the nation. It is a statistic that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), hopes to eliminate through reorganization of National Arson Awareness Week, May 3-9.

"To target arson and extinguish the fires, we have to focus on the core of the problem and that's troubled kids," says FEMA Director James Lee Witt. "Just like the firefighters who risk their lives to douse the flames, none of us can escape the responsibility of fighting this deadly and destructive crime.''

"Target Arson & Don't Get Burned" is a FEMA campaign launched to educate the public about the severity of arson fires and to urge residents to help fight this crime. The agency is focusing a spotlight on a big part of the problem: America's youth.

About 60 percent of all arson fires in the U.S. are started by individuals age 20 or younger; 53 percent of them are set by youths under age 18. Since 1987, the numbers have been increasing, and arsonists often escape punishment.

There appears to be a growing link between arson and illegal drug activity. Preliminary results of a new study by the National Fire Protection Association suggest that between one-fifth to one-fourth of reported arson cases in major American cities are drug-related.

The problem is serious: one of every four fires that occur in the U.S. - some 500,000 - are caused by arson. In 1996, the last year for which full data is available, these fires killed more than 500 people. They destroyed an estimated $3 billion worth of property.

Over the last year, FEMA has worked with four cities in a pilot program to help eradicate arson. Under the National Arson Prevention Initiative, Macon, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., Nashville, Tenn., and Utica, N.Y., have taken the first steps in building community-based coalitions to combat arson at the grassroots level.

These cities have helped to create task forces to investigate arson cases.

They have boarded up vacant and abandoned buildings, and in some cases, demolished them. They've developed intervention programs for juveniles. They've called for stricter code enforcement programs. Schools and churches also have helped with arson awareness programs in their communities.

This is the second year FEMA has led the fight against arson. President Clinton created the National Arson Prevention Initiative in 1996. It grew out of a rash of church burnings - of them in the South - the fact that arson has been the leading cause of fires at churches and houses of worship. Arson has accounted for 25 percent of church burnings and related property fires. In recent years, these crimes have generated a new public awareness about arson.

A dismal fact: Arsonists often escape punishment. Only 16 percent of all arson offenses have led to an arrest, and only 2 percent of those arrested are convicted.

"The facts are grim," says Witt. "But citizens can do their part by helping to provide information about these crimes to police and fire departments."

Further information is available from the National Arson Prevention Clearinghouse at 1-888-603-3100, or at the U.S. Fire Administration's (USFA) Web site at The USFA, which falls under FEMA, works to prevent fires and promote fire safety.

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