Arson hotline fights fires, but needs more tipsters

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Arson is a nefarious crime that costs tens of millions of dollars, burns families out of their homes, defrauds insurance companies, and threatens the lives of residents and the people who fight the fires.

About 1,000 inmates are currently sitting in Texas prisons convicted of arson.

The Texas Arson Hotline, a 22-year-old underused tool could help fight the crime. Officials are once again encouraging citizens to give it a ring if they see something suspicious.

When a North Austin apartment complex went up in flames in April 2011, authorities were stumped until a hotline call led to the arrests and confessions from three juveniles.

There are some 2,500 fire events in Austin annually. Between 300 and 400 are marked as undetermined or suspicious and thus investigated by the 12-man AFD arson investigation unit, headed up by Battalion Chief Aaron Woolverton.

“The one we see the most is spite and revenge,” Woolverton said of motive. “Angry at someone, fire is a good way to strike back.

“The second most common cause is profit, insurance fraud. Followed by pranks.”

The Insurance Council of Texas helped create the hotline and it is supported by the Texas Advisory Council on Arson.

But the group says the hotline is underutilized.

“That’s why we are out there, pushing it,” said Mark Hanna, the hotline’s spokesperson. “It’s up and running and it works.”

Hanna estimates there are approximately two arrests a month in the state thanks to hotline tips, but it could be more.

“What cracks a lot of cases for us are witnesses,” said Woolverton. “We interview them and that leads to suspects, and finding where their story begins to unravel.”

Calls may be anonymous, and if it leads to an arrest, there’s a $1,000 reward. The Texas Arson Hotline is: 877-434-7345 (877-4FIRE45).

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