No arrests had been made Monday in connection with more than 40 brush fires set over the weekend in the St. Andrews area.
Chief Fire Marshal Jeff Allen of the Irmo Fire District, lead investigator on the case, said officials are looking at one or perhaps multiple arsonists in the Sunday incidents. He declined Monday to give any other details about the investigation, including how the fires started.
No new incidents had been reported by early Monday night.
Allen said a call came in around 5 p.m. Sunday about a fire in the woods behind the Seven Oaks Shopping Center on St. Andrews Road. Shortly after firefighters began extinguishing those blazes, they received another call about smoke coming from behind the Irmo Chapin Recreation Commission soccer complex on Broad River Road.
Irmo firefighters responding found multiple small brush fires and called in help from Lexington County and Columbia fire departments, who worked into the evening.
“Because of the high humidity level, it put out a lot of smoke which lets us know where they are,” Allen said of the fires. “If it had been drier or had a bit of wind, it could have been one awful time.”
Allen, a 20-year veteran of the Irmo Fire District and a certified police officer who pursues criminal investigations, said one of the most difficult things about investigating arson is that there is no way to see how the fire started.
“You have to be part cop, part firefighter. We don’t usually have witnesses or confessions,” Allen said. “Arson investigations are based on circumstantial evidence and that is outside of a lot of people’s comfort zone.”
According to Allen, a common misconception about investigating arson is that all of the evidence is destroyed in the fire. But investigators are able to analyze burn patterns, char patterns as well as burn direction to discover evidence in the ashes.
“We are out there now finding in these brush fires the remains of how the individuals started them and that’s not unusual,” Allen said. “You and I both have the opportunity to set fires right now. What we have to look at is, what is different that is making them do it. You have to put yourself in their shoes.
“Am I angry enough? Do I want to get revenge on someone? Is it substance abuse? Is it just for thrills? These are the things we consider,” Allen said. “The main thing is you have to prove a willful and malicious attempt to set a fire. If we can prove those, we can go after somebody.”
Allen said investigators then try to determine the purpose of the fire – from a “terrorism fire,” for example, in which organized groups try to hurt companies or states through large fires that cause billion in damage, to simple juvenile fires or even gang initiation fires.
The deadliest, Allen said, are “revenge fires,” which often result in the most loss of life and property. One such incident happened in 2004 at a Greenville hotel, after a man learned his wife was in a room there with another man.
“He ignited a couple of canisters on the ground floor which spread rapidly into the second floor, resulting in six fatalities,” Allen said. Erice Preston Hans, then 37, was convicted of arson resulting in death and sentenced to life in prison.
Allen said because arson fires are property crimes, they are one of the most underreported crimes nationwide, because they can be written off as vandalism.
“It is much more serious of a crime than just property crime,” Allen said. “There is a big push right now to get more fire departments in the state to investigate them.”