Saturday, April 3, 2010

Does Ann Arbor Have a Fire Bug?

Overnight last night, there were three fires in Ann Arbor.  All began outside student housing.  All are under investigation.  The most serious, which began on the porch of a rental house, sent three people to the hospital.  One, Eastern Michigan University senior Renden LeMaster, subsequently died.  To put this in some perspective, during 2006 (the most recent statistics I could find), the Ann Arbor Fire Department responded to 322 fire calls, less than one a day, and many of these were for situations that did not require them to put out a fire (e.g. burnt toast).  So three is a lot, and someoned dying is a very big deal.

There are two pieces of context that are important in understanding how people are thinking about this.  The first is that yesterday afternoon and evening the National Weather Service had issued a Fire Weather Watch for southeast Michigan.  The weather was unseasonably warm and dry with high wind, meaning that conditions were ripe for fires to start and for small fires to become big ones.  The other is that about 50 miles away in the city of Flint, as I wrote earlier this week, there have been about 40 arson fires in the last three weeks.

Either one of these two factors could stand alone and swing how we feel about the fires last night.  If there was the weather alert and no situation in Flint, people might be thinking this was a string of terrible accidents exacerbated by the weather.  If there were a firebug in Flint and no weather alert, we might be sure this was arson.  As it is, we have both of those things, so you might expect people to reflect a balance in their thinking.

If that's what you expected, you would be wrong.  The news coverage has made no mention of the weather alert at all.  It has been fairly restrained, on the other hand, in pointing to arson.  However, all of the news stories mention that the fires are "under investigation" and that one of them -- not the house fire, but one in which the fire started with a car that had not been driven in a few days -- is considered suspicious.  A commenter posted something about the fires in Flint almost as soon as the first story about last night's fires in Ann Arbor went up.  The University of Michigan has issued a crime bulletin which, paradoxically, describes "several fires" as being "under investigation," but then tells community members to make sure their cigarettes are fully extinguished.

So, why isn't there more balance in people's thinking?  In the hours after an incident, balance is not what we're wired for.  We are wired to consider the worst.  This is a survival instinct.  When something awful happens, we don't want to miss something that might point out that there is more danger ahead, so we are skittish.  If someone has been shot, every car backfiring or door slamming sounds like a shot.  If there has been a car accident, every driver seems a little erratic.  And if there has been a fire, every fire might be arson.  Add in the media's natural tendency to go for the sensational, and we don't have a prayer of having any sense of perspective on this.

It's entirely possible these were all arson fires.  It's much more likely that one or two were and the other(s) were accidental.  It is very unlikely that there is a new serial firebug in Ann Arbor, as there is in Flint, although of course time will tell.  It's a good time to remember to check smoke detectors and escape routes, but it's also a good time to remember that while a rash of arson fires affecting us personally is possible, it still isn't likely.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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