San Francisco — Federal statistics show a slight national decrease in arson, but the arsonist's smoky signature -- curling up and down California this past week -- is the kind of hard evidence that will make a firefighter turn up his nose at statistics. ``Arson is alive and well,'' says Capt. Tom Burau of the arson section of the Los Angeles Fire Department, which is handling last week's $15 million arson fire in the Baldwin Hills residential area.
``Allegedly, it [arson] is decreasing. Statistics let you read a trend. . . . But we get 20 to 30 cases [fires] a day, and most we don't even look at,'' he adds. Captain Burau says he believes arson occurs in higher numbers than reported because there isn't the manpower to document it.
A third of the major brush fires now burning in California -- including a fire to the south near Los Gatos that flared up Sunday and has caused the evacuation of 4,000 people -- are believed to be caused by arson.
Arson, a crime of stealth, is a murky one to document -- especially in the cases of the 37 California fires being fought on semi-isolated terrain. A brush fire is a powerful phenomenon to witness: With brittle tinder, it can literally explode over a region. Finding the source of such a fire takes patient investigative work, sifting through the ash of confusing ``swirls'' of fire and checking for the intensity of flame at various points, sometimes across acres of land.
Ninety percent of all fires are believed to be caused by man -- and 20 percent of all fires are deliberately set. More startling, half of all arson incidents are believed to be caused by juveniles, fire officials say.
As of Wednesday, 72,000 fires have occurred in US wildland this year, burning 1.9 million acres. This compares with just 34,000 fires, covering 1.2 million acres, in all of 1984, says Arnold Hartigan, public information officer with the Boise Interagency Fire Center.
While most of the fires still burning in Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon were sparked by lightning, the majority of fires in populated areas are caused by human beings, he says. In California, 300,000 acres were scorched as a result of human action -- accidental and deliberate.
Fire officials in California say the outbreak of arson cases may be more aberration of circumstances than of behavior. Burau says it's not unusual for his department to respond to 10 to 15 deliberately set grass fires every day in the summer. But now, it's dry vegetation and hot winds that fan an arsonist's fire to giant proportions, he says.
Dale Wierman, fire information officer at the California Department of Forestry, says that ``the problem compounds itself once you get any number of fires going.'' With ``the fire and the excitement, the aircraft flying around, the smoke and heat and pandemonium . . . , it seems to bring out that element of society that likes to set fires.''
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report shows an 11 percent decrease in reported arsons in 1983 from '82. The 1984 figures, to be released later this month, show no change from 1983.
The problem with statistics, say fire officials in California, is that there may seem to be a dip in arson because, as awareness of the crime peaked in the 1970s, reporting of it also rose. They also note that techniques for reporting vary widely: A trash fire may be reported as ``deliberately'' set in one district, but not in another.
A statistical decline in arson doesn't impress Don Striepeke, assistant chief for fire prevention at the California Department of Forestry. He says federal, state, and local agencies collecting data in California over the past five years show that arson accounts for 18 percent of all wildland fires. But arson fires are usually the worst ones, accounting for 35 percent of the damage during that same five years, he says.
Arson is often associated with urban areas, says Carl Kent, a 10-year veteran of arson investigation and an instructor at the California Department of Forestry Academy. Personal recognition and monetary gain are the two biggest motivators in arson, he says. ``Sometimes a kid will [set fires] because he wants attention, or he's bored or angry or wants revenge or recognition for reporting a fire,'' he says.
Mr. Kent says he's also seen cases in which firefighters or heavy-equipment contractors, suffering from public payroll cuts, set fires to drum up business.
The FBI ``profile'' of arsonists shows 37 percent of the people arrested are younger than 18 -- and a whopping 62 percent are under 25.
Anti-arson programs for juveniles are a major focus of fire officials' community outreach across the country. Mr. Kent says that in most areas where ``Learn Not to Burn'' programs have been introduced to grammar-school children, there has been a corresponding drop in fires.