LEE COUNTY, Fla.- Fire investigators say arson causes millions of dollars in damage each year and can cost everyone more in insurance premiums. It's one of the hardest crimes to solve and investigators gave WINK News an exclusive look at how they train.
To give you an idea of how hard it is to crack an arson case, the State Fire Marshal's Office investigates thousands each year and less than 20 percent of them lead to an arrest. Sometimes in order to catch a crook, you have to think like one.
Tracy McMillion is with the Southwest Florida Fire Academy. Monday, he and some students were setting kitchens on fire.
"There's several different motivations," McMillion said.
He said kitchen fires are easy to pass off as an accident. It's a scheme some homeowners are using to get a quick payout.
"Whether it's they can't sell a house, they're looking for insurance money, looking for a new kitchen, there's a whole number of reasons why people do it," said McMillon.
That's called arson for profit.
"Unfortunately, they're becoming more and more popular," McMillon continued.
This class started with a few hours of textbook instruction, on what types of red flags investigators should look for and how to build a case.
After a couple hours of instruction, students take what they learn in the classroom, bring it to a burned house and put the textbook theories to test.
In this case, students focused on a common kitchen fire scenario: a pan of oil left unattended on a hot stove. Using different types of oil, they test how hot it burns and how long it takes to ignite. These are details necessary to prove or disprove a homeowner's story.
"An accidental stove fire is, 'I turned it on and oops, I forgot it! Or, 'OK, honey I'm going to turn the stove on let's leave now," said Phil Brown. "Same dynamic, two totally different reasons."
While Florida Law Enforcement numbers show a decrease in overall arson cases within the last five years, the State Department of Financial Services says the number of arson for profit cases has risen almost 50 percent.
State Farm Arson Investigator Bill Watson said the crime can impact everyone and has already started to in the form of higher insurance rates.
"The average family in the United States spends an average of $400 to $700, just to cover those costs of insurance fraud and arson," Watson said.
And it's not just money out of your pocket.
"Because anytime you actually put a fire out there, it could actually cause a life hazard to residents and citizens as well as fire personnel, not so much just going into the fire, but responding to the call. When we got 10-18 to a call lights and sirens, there's people that have to pull over and accidents can actually be caused," said McMillion.
McMillion also said an arsonist can set a fire, intending it to stay small, but it can quickly get out of control and spread to other homes.
"As somebody who wants to provide a service and help the public it really makes me upset that these things take place for selfish gains," McMillion explained.
He said that's why he and other investigators train constantly knowing the more fires they set, the more they can solve. Was it arson or accidental?
Last year in the State of Florida FDLE said there were nearly 2,000 reported arson fires, about 100 of those took place in Lee, Collier or Charlotte Counties.
Anyone with information on a suspicious fire is encouraged to call the arson tip hotline at 1-877-NO-ARSON. Tips that lead to an arrest can be rewarded with up to $2,500.