Local fire officials say it’s relatively easy to determine if a fire was intentionally set, based on the scene and the evidence.
Arson is the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property, and according to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, there were four cases of arson in 2019, 12 in 2020, and four so far in 2021.
“We usually don’t have a whole lot of arson cases, and we usually get help from the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] on cases that are major crimes,” said Sheriff Jason Chennault. “If it’s anything that we think is arson, the State Fire Marshal's Office is in charge of the investigation into the cause, and they’re stretched so thin that they have to pick and choose what they come out on.”
While the sheriff’s office doesn’t have an arson investigator per se, Investigators David Craig and Matt Meredith normally handle those cases, since they also work for the Tahlequah Fire Department.
Chennault said most cases involving arson typically involve barns or shop buildings.
Tahlequah Fire Chief Casey Baker said there have been eight intentional fires so far in 2021. There were 27 intentional fires reported in 2020 to TFD.
“Intentional could mean someone who was burning brush pile and it gets out of hand. So it’s not someone intentionally burning a house,” said Baker.
Baker said first-degree arson is when someone maliciously sets a fire or burns an occupied structure. Second-degree arson is charged when a structure is unoccupied, and third-degree is when a fire is set to property by the use of an explosive device. The property involved could be an automobile, trailer, motorcycle, boat, farm crops, pasture land, or forest land.
The penalties for first-degree arson are a fine up to $25,000 and up to 35 years in prison. Second-degree arson calls for a fine up to $20,000 and up to 25 years in prison, and third-degree arson may result in a fine up to $10,000 and up to 15 years prison.
Baker said patterns play a key role in determining where and how a fire started.
“It’s fairly easy to determine the cause and origin, and that’s what we do when we have a fire. We’ll dig out the scene where the most damage of the fire is caused, and that points in the direction of where it started,” said Baker. “When accelerants are poured onto something, they leave a certain type of pattern, and we will collect evidence as far as taking it to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.”
Baker and Chennault said an attempt to collect insurance is the most common reason why someone would intentionally set a fire.
“In most cases, when that happens, all of your evidence burns up as well, so it’s very hard to prove,” said Chennault.