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Cedar Rapids sees spike in 2020 arsons

Molotov cocktails, derecho debris fires drive surge

Engine 1 pulls out of the Cedar Rapids Central Fire Station on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette file
Engine 1 pulls out of the Cedar Rapids Central Fire Station on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette file photo)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A spate of fires set by tossing Molotov cocktails and intentionally setting piles of derecho debris ablaze led to a spike last year in arsons — a crime that’s typically hard for authorities to solve.

According to data from the Cedar Rapids Police Department, there were 32 fire incidents in 2020 determined to be arson. That’s a 60 percent increase from the 20 cases of arson reported the year before.

Twelve of those incidents, according to Cedar Rapids Fire Marshal Vance McKinnon, were fires sparked from Molotov cocktails or fires involving debris created by the Aug. 10 derecho.

“If we remove those incidents from the 2020 total, we would be right even with where we were the year before,” he said.

Only five of the 2020 arsons brought arrests, and many more remain under investigation.

A majority of the fires sparked by Molotov cocktails took place in June, about the same time the nation was experiencing civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

“Those incidents just happened to happen during that time of civil unrest,” McKinnon said. “We don’t have any evidence that connects those incidents with any individuals who were involved in the local protests. But it’s fair to mention the civil unrest given that during some of the protests and civil unrest that took place throughout the country, Molotov cocktails were used to disrupt things.”

The first of that year’s fires in Cedar Rapids sparked by a Molotov cocktail occurred the early morning of Jan. 25, 2020, when someone put an incendiary device under a vehicle in a parking lot in the 3300 block of Queen Drive SW.

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But four more of the incidents occurred in less than 24 hours between 7:50 a.m. June 1 and 7:35 a.m. June 2. In all of them, Molotov cocktails were thrown at or into businesses.

Two weeks later, the fire department said a Molotov cocktail was thrown in the street near 1755 I Ave. NE.

The six debris fires occurred within a two-day period in October, according to the Cedar Rapids Fire Department. All involved mattresses that had been set ablaze and left to burn in or near the street.

The remaining 20 arsons recorded in 2020 were more aligned with what is typically seen in a year in Cedar Rapids.

“Typically, arsons are a crime of passion, if you will — usually somebody’s trying to get revenge on somebody else for some reason or another,” McKinnon said. “And that’s what we typically see here. … And to prove that point, four of the five arson arrests we made in 2020 were related to domestic issues or some type of retaliation.”

Arson cases are incredibly difficult to solve, McKinnon said.

The Cedar Rapids Fire Department has a three-person fire investigation team, he said, all of whom are fire captains.

“Some of the issues that make arson an exceptionally difficult crime to solve are that any type of evidence can be burned up in that fire,” said public safety spokesperson Greg Buelow. “And on top of that, we’ve got our firefighters showing up carrying hose lines that crank out a whole lot of water, and that water can sometimes displace evidence or items at the scene, which makes it difficult to see exactly how that scene was before firefighters arrived.”

Much of arson investigations depend on witness accounts and security video, McKinnon said, and what evidence and samples can be recovered from the scene are sent out for analysis.

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“Camera footage is very important in an investigation,” he said. “If we have footage and we are able to identify individuals, then investigators are able to follow up and find those folks.”

McKinnon said the average clearance rate for arson investigations in Cedar Rapids is “10 to 20 percent.”

“That’s roughly the success rate that we see here, and that’s consistent with what we see nationally,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

2020 arson cases in Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids saw 32 arson cases in 2020, a 60 percent increase from the 20 cases recorded the year before. Authorities said debris piles left from the derecho and set ablaze and incidents involving Molotov cocktails led to the spike. Here is a breakdown of the types of arson fires the fire department fielded in 2020:

8 arsons involved fires set in residences or garages

7 arsons involved vehicles that were set on fire

6 arsons stemmed from Molotov cocktails

6 arsons stemmed from derecho debris piles

3 arsons stemmed from altercations or domestic disturbances

2 arsons involved fires set at businesses

Note: Many of the arsons recorded in 2020 could be included in multiple categories.

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