Death by arson is part of a disturbing upswing in violence in Philadelphia, with gunplay and murder at levels not seen since the late 1990s, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. This year, 366 people had been slain as of this week, a pace that would surpass last year’s total of 380. Fire deaths have also been on the rise, from 32 in 2002 to 52 last year. More people die in fires in Philadelphia, per capita, than almost any other large city in America. This year, the toll is 44.
Within this growing trend of deadly fires, arson is a savage subset. The fast-moving blazes can quickly claim entire families and endanger firefighters. The vast majority of arsonists get away. Of the 411 homes burned in arsons last year, police made arrests in fewer than two in 10 cases. In the fatal arsons, the rate isn’t much better: Police have filed charges in just four cases this year, and one suspect is still on the loose. Arsons are much deadlier, on average, than accidental fires. That’s often because arsonists use accelerants. Since 2001, half of those killed by intentionally set fires were children or teenagers. This year, while arson deaths are up, only one victim was a juvenile, a 17-year-old girl who died in a fire set because of a dispute over $20.