Knoxville Fire Department sees more cases of arson related to me

Knoxville Fire Department sees more cases of arson related to mental illness

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The fire at the former Kerns Bakery Distribution Center in November. The fire at the former Kerns Bakery Distribution Center in November.
A 62-year-old homeless man admitted to starting the Kerns fire. A 62-year-old homeless man admitted to starting the Kerns fire.

By LORI TUCKER
6 News Anchor

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Recent fires in Knoxville have local firefighters on alert. Some people, not classified as criminals, are setting these fires.

It's often more than the homeless trying to make temporary shelter more comfortable. It's something that, in many ways, could be more disturbing and dangerous.

"We'll also see fires started by people that didn't like the color of a building, maybe, or voices told them to burn this particular place, so that's very alarming and concerning," said D.J. Corcoran with the Knoxville Fire Department. "The reasons they gave were, you just couldn't comprehend. It didn't make sense."

That's the case in a raging fire at the former Kerns Bakery Distribution Center in November.

A 62-year-old homeless man admitted to starting it.

Fire officials said it wasn't the first time they've had to deal with him.

"When we see the same people over and over, then we know the system's failed somewhere because otherwise, they'd be taken care of somewhere and they wouldn't be just turned back out on the street," Corcoran said.

Emergency crews refer to many of these repeat offenders as frequent fliers, the ones that aren't considered hardened criminals but do break the law, because they are undermedicated, overmedicated, or have yet to be diagnosed with a mental illness.

Ben Harrington of the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee says while these cases are concerning, they make up a fraction of the fires classified as arson in our area.

"The folks who might have a serious illness that may set fires, they are very few in nature," he said.

Often the court will make the decision to place these people in a state hospital. The closest, after Lakeshore Mental Health facility in Knoxville was shut down, is Moccasin Bend in the Chattanooga area.

Wouldn't it save taxpayer dollars to house them here in town?

DJ Corcoran says, in a word, "Yes."

But Harrington disagrees.

"There are not that many. That's the thing. It's a handful."

No matter the numbers, there's always the fear the next fire call will have deadly consequences.

As Corcoran somberly says, "It's tough to deal with."

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