Church fires com­mon, but usu­ally not the re­sult of ar­son

The Covington News - - RELIGION - BRUCE SMITH & RAY HENRY news@cov­

As in­ves­ti­ga­tors probe church fires in­clud­ing the blaze that de­stroyed a ru­ral black church tar­geted by the Ku Klux Klan 20 years ago, the ques­tion is spread­ing through so­cial media: #WhoIsBurn­ingBlack­Churches?

The an­swers could likely be no dif­fer­ent than what causes other build­ings to burn, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts study­ing the in­ci­dents re­ported by fire de­part­ments na­tion­wide.

The pas­tor sus­pects light­ning may be to blame for de­stroy­ing the Mount Zion African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church in Gree­leyville, which is about 50 miles north of the "Mother Emanuel" church in Charleston where nine peo­ple were killed on June 17. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues, but a fed­eral of­fi­cial told The As­so­ci­ated Press on con­di­tion of anonymity for lack of au­tho­riza­tion to speak pub­licly early in­di­ca­tions sug­gest ar­son was not in­volved.

More than half of fires at houses of wor­ship from 2007 to 2011 were blamed on cook­ing equip­ment and heat­ing and elec­tri­cal sys­tems, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion. The as­so­ci­a­tion based its es­ti­mate on data col­lected by the U.S. Fire Ad­min­is­tra­tion and sup­ple­mented with sur­vey re­sults. An es­ti­mated 16 per­cent were in­ten­tion­ally set, and some frac­tion of those were later deemed hate crimes. Those fig­ures on fires at re­li­gious struc­tures in­clude a small num­ber of fu­neral homes.

That's a much lower rate than at­tacks on schools: About half of all school fires are in­ten­tion­ally set. But it is twice the rate of at­tacks on homes, where about 8 per­cent of fires are in­ten­tion­ally set, ac­cord­ing to the NFPA es­ti­mates.

"Per­cep­tion mat­ters," said Marty Ahrens, an an­a­lyst for the fire pro­tec­tion as­so­ci­a­tion. "We don't know all the causes of all the fires that have gone on this week. But if the church ar­sons had not hap­pened so soon af­ter the tragedy in Charleston, that hor­ri­ble in­ci­dent, would it have got­ten the same level of at­ten­tion?"

While church fires have de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly in re­cent decades, they are not in­fre­quent: Blazes at houses of wor­ship hap­pened, on av­er­age, 31 times a week across the na­tion, ac­cord­ing to the data col­lected dur­ing the five-year pe­riod end­ing in 2011. If those trends still hold to­day, an av­er­age of five church fires could be in­ten­tion­ally set each week.

By com­par­i­son, since the shoot­ings in Charleston, author­i­ties have in­ves­ti­gated roughly a half-dozen fires at pre­dom­i­nantly black churches in the South­east, only three of which ap­pear to be ar­son. So far, no ev­i­dence of hate crimes has pub­licly sur­faced. No one keeps a com­pre­hen­sive, up-to-date tally of church fires in the United States, so it's pos­si­ble to un­der­count the in­ci­dents.

It's dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine whether his­tor­i­cally black churches burn more fre­quently than other churches. The best avail­able gov­ern­ment data doesn't dis­tin­guish churches by the pre­dom­i­nant race of their con­gre­ga­tions.

White su­prem­a­cists in the South have burned black churches over the years as a po­lit­i­cal ter­ror­ism tac­tic. But some at­tacks on black con­gre­ga­tions defy sim­ple racial mo­tives. For ex­am­ple, the task force formed by Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton found that 37 per­cent of the peo­ple ar­rested for bomb­ing or burn­ing black churches in the 1990s were black them­selves.

The same task force re­ported that many ar­son­ists ap­peared to have non­ra­cial mo­tives, such as cov­er­ing up other crimes, py­ro­ma­nia and other men­tal ill­ness.

Lo­cal and fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors said Wed­nes­day that they haven't ruled out any po­ten­tial cause for the fire at Mount Zion, which started late Tues­day as light­ning storms rolled through the area.

Churches may face spe­cial fire risks. For ex­am­ple, in­sur­ers have cau­tioned that church spires may at­tract light­ning strikes, and churches may pose an easy tar­get for ar­son­ists, since many are va­cant out­side of weekly wor­ship ser­vices.

Still, the es­ti­mated num­ber of in­ten­tion­ally set fires at houses of wor­ship and fu­neral homes has trended down­ward, fall­ing 71 per­cent from 1,320 in 1980 to 380 in 1998, ac­cord­ing to an NFPA anal­y­sis. That co­in­cides with a gen­eral de­crease in all fires at those struc­tures.

The Rev. John Tay­lor, who is in his ninth year as the pas­tor of Mount Zion, said he im­me­di­ately re­called the blaze two decades ago when he learned his re­built church was on fire again.

"Of course we thought about it. We wouldn't be hu­man if we didn't," he said as he stood out­side the build­ing's charred shell. But as to the cause of the most re­cent fire, he said, "I re­ally thought it prob­a­bly was a light­ning strike."

Gree­leyville Mayor Jesse Parker was en­cour­ag­ing pa­tience as in­ves­ti­ga­tors do their work.

"We'll just let them do their jobs and let them bring us the re­sults of how it got started and we will ac­cept the find­ings," he said.

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