College students return this month, with some moving off-campus for the first time. Fire investigators will be on the beat in the next two months, reminding students that they're targets of a prolific arsonist who has made the evolving neighborhoods north of the College of Charleston his flammable playground.
The unknown person (or persons) may be responsible for as many as 46 fires over the last seven years, most set on the porches of vacant homes or college rental properties where furniture or other materials have been left unattended in the dark of night when, as one investigator put it, "most legitimate people are sleeping." It appears the only weapon he uses is a cheap lighter, with no evidence of gasoline or other accelerants, says police Detective Larry Burn of the Charleston Police Department.
"We think the person could be just lighting whatever is on the porch and leaving, then watching from a distance before moving on," he says.
Fires have plagued Charleston for various reasons over the years, leading to the leveling or rebuilding of several prominent historic structures. In the first lines of his new book, Charleston Is Burning!, historian Daniel J. Crooks Jr. notes, "The history of Charleston in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was shaped by fire."
And this isn't the first time that the neighborhood around the Crosstown has been the target of arson. For six weeks in 1977, the area was held hostage by an arsonist who set as many as 27 fires, including one at a major lumber yard and three at area schools. The young man arrested for the fires eventually told investigators that he got a sexual thrill out of setting them.
"The neighborhood is accessible to a lot of people," says Assistant Fire Chief Raymond Lloyd. "There's a lot of foot traffic and a lot of opportunity."
But this latest arsonist isn't in a hurry, and, among a slew of vacant homes and many a furnished porch, he's been careful to cherry pick his "opportunities," confounding investigators.
"As far as good leads or witnesses, we're lacking in that department," Burn says.
Officials have passed out the arson hotline number and talked to area residents about the fires, pleading with folks to stay observant.
"We need people to be diligent," Lloyd says. "If we don't have the citizens help us, it's a difficult thing."
Neighbors should get to know each other and help keep an eye on nearby homes. If there are strangers acting suspicious, Lloyd says people should contact police.
As college students return to school, officials will be ramping up educational efforts by speaking on campus about the issue and visiting students living in the neighborhood based on lists compiled by area colleges.
There's a good reason why sharing information is such a priority. Victims of a June 17 fire were new to the area and didn't know about the string of arsons in the neighborhood. The latest victims on June 28 knew about the fires, but didn't think they had anything to be concerned about.
And if there are two things the arsonist is banking on, it's naiveté and apathy. He's also relying on opportunity.
"I think that the person has scoped the area and saw this house and what was on the front porch and decided to come back at another time and do it," Burn says.
But it's not just the porch furniture that may be attracting the arsonist to particular homes. Investigators note that they often arrive on the scene and find there aren't many lights on.
"Darkness hides a lot of things," Lloyd says. "We're hoping if they leave their porch light on, it will be a deterrent."
The investigators are also trying to board up as many vacant homes as possible to make them less inviting for the arsonist or for homeless squatters known for starting their own small fires in the winter for warmth.
Working with state and federal agents, local officials say they've weighed a variety of motives and had psychologists build profiles of the arsonist.
White college students seem to be frequent targets, but Lloyd says its coincidental that they're the victims and more likely tied to their proclivity for outdoor sofas.
"It's hard to get a motive other than it's a motive of opportunity and it's something that excites them to see the fire and the lights and sirens," Lloyd says.
Often with months between a quick succession of blazes, the downtime has complicated the search. Investigators have looked at habitual criminals who may be in and out of prison at corresponding times or people who might be in town at the same time as the fires, without finding any leads.
Police and fire officials aren't waiting for the next blaze. They're constantly reviewing evidence and analyzing other arson cases. Police detective Burn and a fire department investigator will be attending a two-week course on arsons in Columbia later this month and they frequently participate in regional training forums.
"We're reviewing the cases on a daily basis to try to get the last ones solved before we have one next month," Burn says.
How to avoid getting burned
• Residents should remove furniture from their porches and install motion-detecting lights or keep porch lights on overnight.
• Have a fire plan for the home that includes a second exit strategy if the primary exit is blocked, including a collapsible ladder for the second floor, if necessary.
• College students or other renters should purchase rental insurance to help protect their stuff in case of a fire.
Sources: Charleston Fire and Police Departments