Person may be committing arson to clean up town, Fire official says

By Josh Harvison - bio | email

BLYTHEVILLE, AR (KAIT) – Officials with the Blytheville Fire Department told Region 8 News Tuesday 16 arsons have been under investigation since the weekend. According to Fire Marshal Rex Wilhite, most of the fires have been set in vacant structures and dilapidated homes.

"Since September first, we've had 16 arson fires," said Wilhite. "We do have a high rate of fires in Blytheville, but not anything like it is. This is probably four or five, six times as high as what we usually have."

According to Wilhite, the suspect or suspects may be setting vacant homes on fire to battle crime. Vacant homes, police said, are frequent spots for squatters and vandals.

"The fires we have not are all vacant, mostly condemned houses. It's like a cleanup project with this arsonist. Whoever it is doing it, he's hand picking them. He knows how to set fires. He's burned them completely up, by the time the fire department get there, it's fully involved," said Wilhite. "A lot of houses do need to be taken down and we do have a problem. We have some concerns with the citizens of Blytheville about what has taken so long to get the houses torn down, but if you've driven through some of the neighborhoods in Blytheville, we do have a big problem."

Arson is a felony according to Arkansas state law and federal law. Wilhite said despite the fact he believes the criminal or criminals may be trying to clean up the town, it's still illegal.

"Somebody evidently is taking it into their own hands to try to clean it up," said Wilhite.

He said there are other possibilities for the arsons.

"Maybe three were trying to conceal another crime and the rest of them were simply vacant houses that nobody lives in," said Wilhite. "Whoever is doing it is really doing it on Sunday nights big time. We've had several weeks in a row now where they'll do two or three a night Sunday night."

Wilhite said most all of the arsons have also been locations of theft. He said criminals see scrap metal as easy pickings.

"Most of these houses they've already robbed everything out of them anyway. The easy stuff. Stuff that they've got easy access to. I'm sure they're coming to salvage some of the stuff out of it," said Wilhite. "Anywhere where the fire has cooled, there's no metal, no copper."

No suspects or persons of interest have been established in these cases and it's not fully known if all arsons are connected.

"Regardless of how good you think your motive is to clean up a neighborhood or whatever, arson is wrong to start it. It's wrong for somebody to plan it for you," said Wilhite.

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