Inside look: Solving arson in Portland - KPTV - FOX 12

Inside look: Solving arson in Portland

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PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) -

When fire catches, they’re the people called to sift through the ashes, and to look for what, or who, sparked the flames. A team of just seven people investigate Portland’s hundreds of arson crimes a year.

Last week, they tracked down a teenager accused of starting four grass and brush fires in the Irvington neighborhood.

To a trained eye, the evidence is still visible.

“You can see in this grass,” Investigator Rick McGraw said. “You can see a pour.”

He’s been part of Portland’s Fire Investigations Unit for eighteen years.

The unit, made up of seven people, determines the cause of fires. And, in hundreds of cases a year, who started them.

Sometimes it isn’t easy, but sometimes they catch a break. Like in last week’s case, when someone witnessed the 15-year-old starting the four grass fires.

“If we can solve every small crime like this, our numbers later on would probably be reduced,” McGraw said.

But, their numbers already stand out. Portland Fire & Rescue said the Arson Investigators have a conviction rate of 25 percent. That’s nearly twice the national average of 13 percent.

The unit credits that to a specialized partnership. Each member is not only a fire investigator, but also cross trained as law enforcement.

“They're just like me,” Portland Police Detective Joe Luiz said. “They have the same certification and a lot of the same training that I would, as a police officer.”

Detective Luiz has been with the unit, investigating arson for four years.

“We can take it from the fire to the courtroom without a hiccup,” he said. “It appears to be pretty rare around the country, and I think that's why we're so effective.”

It’s proven to work in all kinds of cases. A lot of their investigations involve damage more serious than the grass fires in the Irvington neighborhood, and come with much higher stakes for arsonists.

Late last month, a judge sentenced a man to nearly six years in prison for a fire that destroyed a popular Portland restaurant that occurred in November of 2013. The Arson Investigators said it’s the unique make-up of their team that led them to two suspects almost immediately.

While more than 50 firefighters put out the flames tearing through Pal’s Shanty, police and paramedics found the man who started it and his accomplice.

“That sharing of information is what led to that quick arrest of the two suspects,” McGraw said.

Both pleaded guilty, but the damage is irreversible.

“Arson is a very, very dangerous, very catastrophic crime,” Detective Luiz said. “Pal's Shanty changed their lives. These people's livelihood was ruined.”

That’s what this team wants to prevent, by working together to keep their conviction rate rising and arson numbers dropping.

“This is a serious crime and we take it seriously in the city of Portland,” McGraw said.

The investigators say arson is a tough crime to solve because the evidence is burned. Last year, the unit investigated 209 arson crimes and cleared 55 with arrests.

2015 is the 100th anniversary of the Arson Investigators.

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