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There were over 150,000 fires attended by fire and rescue services in England between March 2021 and 2022, according to the latest Home Office figures. Of these, almost half were deliberately started, making arson the leading single cause of fire in the country. The year marked a concerning reversal of the downward trend of the number of arson attacks and overall fires attended. According to local police crime statistics, across England and Wales the three areas recording the highest instances of arson were in Wales.
Arson has long been a blight on communities across the country, causing significant financial losses to individuals, businesses and local authorities.
The demands on fire and rescue services from deliberately started fires are greater than any other incident type according to the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), diverting resources from life-threatening incidents and preventative activities.
Fire and rescue services attended a total of 152,608 fires in England between March 2021 and 2022, up by one percent from the previous year, according to fire statistics recorded by the Home Office.
Arson was the cause of 69,776 of these cases, 45.7 percent of the total, a 9.5 percent increase on the year ending March 2021.
Arson is behind almost half of fire incidents in England
This figure includes 2,685 call-outs to deliberate fires in homes, 3,100 to non-residential dwellings and 7,775 calls to torched vehicles.
However, the vast majority were secondary fires, generally small outdoor fires without substantial harm to people or property, such as grassland fires.
Considering arson cases reported to police as criminal, during the year ending in March 24,811 offences were reported across England and Wales, a 6.9 percent rise from 23,218 the year prior, during which the country was under lockdown restrictions and overall crime rates fell.
There were 4,116 arson attacks where lives were put at risk between 2021 and 2022, up from 3,950 the previous year and 4,024 the year preceding the pandemic.
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Relative to population size, arson attacks were more likely in Blaenau Gwent in Wales than anywhere else in England and Wales.
In that area, police recorded 151 crimes of arson, equating to roughly 216 incidents for every 100,000 people.
The areas with the next two highest arson rates were also in Wales, Caerphilly registering 161 per 100,000 residents, and Newport 147.
In England, Middlesbrough reported the highest rate of arson at 135 per 100,000.
Last year there were 566 arson attacks in Birmingham alone, the highest of any police community safety area in England and Wales, including 83 that put lives at risk.
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Robin Turnbull, arson and anti-social behaviour lead officer for the NFCC, said: “Arson and deliberate fire setting has a significant impact on fire and rescue service resources, with a conservative estimate of the economic cost of arson being £2.5 billion, and the wider societal impact from arson and deliberate fire setting potentially being significantly higher.
“Fire and rescue services will continue to work in partnership with police forces to investigate the cause of arson and prosecute those responsible who attempt to damage or destroy property and endanger life.”
A recent horrifying incident occurred in County Durham, where a cocker spaniel snatched from a garden in the village of Ouston was doused in petrol and set on fire, later having to be put down.
Arson – defined by the CPS as the destroying or damaging of property without lawful excuse, doing so with intent or by recklessness – carries a maximum sentence of life in prison depending on the severity of the case, evidence of planning and the intent to put lives at risk.
Home Office figures show that someone was charged or summonsed to appear before the courts in 16.1 percent of crimes of arson endangering life in the year ending March 2022, where investigations are complete.
That figure drops to 1.9 percent in cases where lives are not put at risk, with eight in ten of these investigations concluding with no suspect identified.
Deputy Chief Constable Andrew Prophet, National Police Chiefs Council lead for anti-social behaviour and arson, said: “Arson is not a low-level crime. We cannot underestimate the devastating impact it has on communities and people’s lives across the country.
“It directly endangers both lives and property, and in the worst cases can kill people.
“Police take all reports of arson seriously and any increase in the number of lives being put at risk by those committing arson is a serious concern.”
Over the last 20 years, the number of fires attended by fire and rescue services has decreased significantly in England, falling by upwards of 60 percent, while cases of arson plummeted by around 70 percent.
This can’t be interpreted as the burden on fire brigades lessening, as the number of employed firefighters dropped by roughly 20 percent while austerity measures were in place.
During the last decade, the average response time to a call has crept up from eight minutes and for seconds to eight minutes and fifty seconds.
The exceptionally hot weather this summer has led to a surge in the demand on fire and rescue services according to the NFCC, as well as a spike in cases of suspected arson, with Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service reporting 51 incidents just last week.
London Fire Brigade had its busiest day since World War 2 on July 19, attending more than 1,110 incidents.