Arson: What you need to know

Fire damage to any property whether it be unoccupied, a permanent residence, public building, or a derelict shell can be a huge inconvenience and cost to all involved. But fire damage caused by arson can add an additional layer of trauma and financial loss to all of the affected parties. Local communities and businesses can also feel the effects of an arson attack as well as the fire and police services who must control and investigate the fire.

We have broken down some of the basic questions relating to arson and the effects it can have on your unoccupied property.

What is arson?

Arson is the deliberate act of starting a fire with the intent of causing malicious damage. Though buildings are the usual target of arson attacks, vehicles, boats, and forests are also subjected to fire and charring damage caused by deliberate fire starting.

Arsonist is the term given to the induvial who commits the act of arson. Arsonists will tend to use accelerants when attempting to start a fire such as petrol, kerosene, butane, or any other flammable and ignitable liquids.

There could be many reasons why an arsonist may seek to damage their own or someone else’s property such as:

  • General vandalism.
  • Deliberately starting a fire to their own property for the purposes of collecting monetary gain through their home insurance policy. This is considered insurance fraud and is also punishable by law.
  • A disgruntled individual may seek ‘revenge’ against another individual by way of arson.
  • An arsonist may have an impulse control disorder or Pyromania which is characterised by the pathological setting of fires. However, fires started by genuine Pyromaniacs is rare.

According to Section 4 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, an individual found guilty of committing arson on conviction on indictment, could be liable to imprisonment for life. Whether or not an individual serves their full sentence in prison or not, the punishment for arson is tough in the United Kingdom.

Which properties are at risk?

Although any property from a permanent residence to an unoccupied building could be a target for arson, unoccupied properties are in general at a higher risk. Because of the lack of human activity in or around an unoccupied property, vandals and arsonists could be more tempted to target these premises. Unoccupied properties that could be at risk might:

  • Have easy access points such as broken fencing, windows, and doors.
  • No security systems in place.
  • Be in an isolated location.
  • Have a build-up of combustible waste nearby that could act as an accelerant.

Because an unoccupied property is exactly that, unoccupied, the property is likely to receive more fire damage than a property that is regularly occupied, simply because there may be nobody close by to raise the alarm to the authorities so the fire can be extinguished. The longer the fire burns and spreads the more damage it will inevitably cause.

How to help prevent arson attacks

  • If your property is unoccupied, then you should visit the property regularly and check the building, garden, and any outbuildings for signs of unwanted activity.
  • Install CCTV cameras and an alarm system.
  • Installing flood lights in blind spots around the property, by main access points and the driveway.
  • Remove any build-up of material that maybe lying around the outside the property – this could prevent arsonists using it as a fire starter.
  • Keep an eye on any anti-social behaviour in the area and report anything suspicious to the authorities.
  • Is the fencing around your property secure? If not, consider repairing or replacing the fence.
  • Consider boarding up any access points such as windows, doors and even the letter box inside the door. Specialist companies can install metal or hardwood screens.
  • Turn off the utilities as gas and electric are particularly prone to accelerate fires.

Damage caused by arson

The extent of arson damage to a building or other item can range from simple charring to more serious structural damage or complete ruin. With different building materials all acting differently to the effects of high temperatures and explosive pressures, assessing the damage caused by fire can be extensive and costly. If a building has been ravaged by an arson attack, professional structural engineers will likely have to assess the damage to determine what from the building can be saved and what will need replacing or repairing e.g. external brick walls may be weakened and could collapse or load bearing supports such as beams may not be able to support the weight.

With any fire damage no matter how severe, the outcome could be costly, time consuming and traumatic. The process from first discovering the fire to repairing the damage, will involve many parties such as the fire service, police, insurance companies, utility companies, building surveyors and more.

Does insurance cover arson?

Most home insurance policies will cover against fire damage but not necessarily arson. It is important to carefully look through your policy documents or contact your insurance provider before renewing or signing up to a new policy. Check what the stipulations are for fire damage to your property and if arson is included.

One reason an insurance company may not pay-out for an arson or fire related incident will be if it has been proven that the owner of the property deliberately started the fire. The insurance company will not pay-out for fraudulent claims and an individual found guilty of arson to their own property could face fines and jailtime.

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