Jones County had roughly five times the number of structure fires than some of its neighboring counties in 2016.
WDAM 7 News started an On Your Side investigation and began asking questions into the number of fires and the reason behind them.
“Well, we have an exceptionally large number of fires,” Jones County Fire Coordinator Dan McKenna said. “It’s fairly substantial, and it causes for concern.”
In 2016, Forrest County had 29 structure fires, and Lamar County had 36, according to county data.
Jones County had just shy of 200 structure fires, which varies from the type of “structure,” according to county records.
“There are accidental fires in the vacant properties, probably 100 percent of the time the power is eliminated from the building, the gas is shut off, there’s no natural causes for those fires,” McKenna said. “You know, these fires that are occurring in vacant properties, you know there’s no reason for those to occur, they just shouldn’t be happening.”
Some of the fires are flagged as suspicious, and that is where Jones County Fire Investigator Sgt. Scott Gable comes in.
“I may get three fires in one week, the next week we may not get any, an average is anywhere from 10 to 15 calls for suspicious fires per month,” Gable said. “Some of the fires that we go to could be linked to insurance fraud. I have had cases where they have set the house on fire to collect insurance money.”
Not all of the arrests for arson were for repeated/multiple offenses, according to Gable.
“Those fires are most likely a result of someone wanting to dispose of the property, vandalism, or intentional acts,” McKenna said.
Cause of the fires:
When it comes to the large number of fires, McKenna and Gable said there are multiple reasons.
“Majority of them are from electrical in nature, and you know we do have a share of arson fires and we have a share of fires that are undetermined because there was no way to determine what the cause was from those fires,” McKenna said.
“I think it goes back to you have got to look at the population, one, the other is the way the structures are built,” Gable said. “Some of these structures that I go to now, they’re built back in the 70s and 80s, they do a little bit of remodeling on them, fix them up a little bit.”
Gable said more times than not, the remodeling process is what can lead to a fire.
“For instance, if your hanging sheetrock and they go to drill a nail through the sheet rock and they hit a wire and they cut it at the time not thinking about it, on down the road, the house catches on fire,” Gable said. “One of the top is electrical, and we do have a lot of electrical fires that I see.”
McKenna said the lack of building codes in the county are also a major factor. However, nearby Lamar County does not have building codes, but McKenna said that county’s construction is mostly new structures.
Gable also agreed that insurance fraud by some homeowners does increase the numbers, and sometimes it cannot always be proven.
“Some of the fires that we go to could be linked to insurance fraud, I have had cases where they have set the house on fire to collect insurance money,” Gable said. “Arson is one of the hardest things to solve and piece together, because you are already dealing with a scene that more times than not is destroyed.”
Gable added that he thinks majority of them boil down to insurance.
What can be done:
McKenna said that inspecting your home properly can cut down on the fire risk.
“Inspecting your home, making sure that the electrical system in the home is up to date and that there’s not any problems,” McKenna said. “If you find problems, get those problems resolved, that will help us greatly.”
Gable said be sure to monitor things like hairdryers, plug-in air fresheners and other electrical items in the house, even something like a coffee pot.
“Sometimes the fires are started by simple electrical issues or people using the wrong extension cord for something it’s not meant for,” Gable said.
County Volunteer Fire Department Issues:
Jones County has roughly 340 firefighters on the county-wide roster, and fire officials are interested in that number increasing. McKenna said with large number of fires county-wide, it puts a serious strain on the volunteers and the equipment they use.
“We’re seeing a significant decrease in the number of volunteers that are available during the day, so we’re having to rely on more than just the host department that’s having the fire itself, and call multiple stations to the fires to mitigate the incident,” McKenna said.
McKenna said the fires that are arson, or abandoned structures or things that are set intentionally is a drain on the volunteer resources.
“The bad thing about it is, if we are out there fighting one of those fires, we are taking away the resources that are available to come to the individuals, other people in the community that may have a true need,” he said.
McKenna also said the department needs trucks, because the current ones are starting to malfunction and break-down.
“We have several needs, you know, we have equipment needs, we have personnel needs and probably that’s the most important thing, we can have all the brand new shiny trucks and all the brand new up to date equipment sitting in the station, but if we don’t have the personnel to staff the equipment, we might as well not have it,” he said.
McKenna and Gable both said that Crime Stoppers and the Jones County Sheriff’s Department will prosecute anyone who commits arson.
If you have any information, you can call Jones County Crime Stoppers at 601-428-7867, or the Jones County Sheriff’s Department at 601-425-3147.
In total, all the Jones County Volunteer Fire Departments responded to 3,273 total calls, according to McKenna, and below is a breakdown of some of the “fire” categories.
Further Breakdown of 2016 Numbers in Jones County: