San Francisco Chronicle
Jul. 4—Bay Area arsons spiked last year to a level not seen in the past decade, new state data shows, led by a major jump in the number of structures set ablaze in a year marked by extreme turmoil and record wildfire destruction.
There were 1,970 reported arsons in the nine-county Bay Area in 2020, up 37% from the number of fires set the year prior and more than any other year since at least 2011, according to new crime data from the California Department of Justice. Despite large increases in arsons in the region’s most populous counties, the surge was still less dramatic than a statewide 42% year-over-year jump to 11,759 arsons last year.
Alameda County saw the most reported arsons in the Bay Area last year, at 495, followed by Santa Clara at 389 and San Francisco at 381. Investigators in Alameda County cleared slightly more arson investigations last year — about 13% of those reported, according to the state data — but the number of resolutions dropped in the other two counties.
The state tracked an especially large uptick in fires impacting Bay Area buildings, though arson involving vehicles and other property also rose. In recent years, suspected arsons in the region have impacted everything from individual houses to large-scale construction sites and homeless encampments.
At least one incident this spring turned deadly. A 1-year-old Oakland girl and her father were killed in an April house fire that investigators said could be part of a string of intentional fires in the East Bay city.
Regional fire officials stress that small flames and accidental fires caused by human activity can also be categorized as arson. With California back in a severe drought, residents in many fire-prone areas are on edge about any potential source of sparks.
The rise in arsons also comes as residents in many corners of the Bay Area square off over crime, property damage and whether to double down on law enforcement spending after a tumultuous year. Arson is typically investigated by fire departments, but “frequently occurs in conjunction with other crimes,” the California Department of Justice notes.
While much of the tension over crime and property damage has played out on social media platforms like NextDoor and Twitter, law enforcement agencies have also weighed in on the complicated links between pandemic malaise, social upheaval, crime and property damage.
In Oakland, police last year attributed 137 arsons to turmoil around the time Black Lives Matter protests swept the region and many parts of the country. Organizers of peaceful demonstrations in Oakland last year maintained that property damage is often carried out by unaffiliated individuals, and that the bigger concern should be police use of force against protesters.
In addition to the jump in arsons, the Bay Area’s biggest cities saw a 35% surge in homicides last year, further fueling divides over where to go from here on crime as local governments push back on efforts to cut law enforcement spending. Burglaries, vehicle thefts and aggravated assaults all also increased last year, while rape and robberies decreased, the California Department of Justice data shows.
Before last year, rates of crimes including arson had been flat or decreasing in many parts of the Bay Area and the U.S. In 2019, the FBI reported a 5% year-over-year drop in nationwide arsons. The average cost of damage related to an instance of arson was around $16,370, according to the bureau.
Lauren Hepler is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @LAHepler
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