Morgantown makes couch burning a felony

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Fire starters, beware: The city of Morgantown will begin filing felony charges against people caught setting celebratory street and trash bin fires, and convictions can carry prison time.

Traditionally, the hometown of West Virginia University has relied on its misdemeanor malicious burning ordinance to handle students and others who start hundreds of potentially dangerous bonfires each year. Conviction carries a mandatory $1,000 fine.

But Fire Department Capt. Ken Tennant and Police Chief Ed Preston said Wednesday they're teaming up this year to add the third- and fourth-degree state arson charges to their tool kits. Conviction could mean one to three years in prison, depending on the charge.

"We tried to handle it on a local level . . . but unfortunately, it has not been a deterrent, for whatever reason," Capt. Tennant said. "The collective decision is to take a more serious approach."

At the same time, the city, WVU, private property owners and others are collaborating on a public awareness campaign targeting what Preston says is the typical offender - a white male, 18 to 22 years old and usually intoxicated.

"If someone throws a bag of trash in the street and sets it on fire, they're looking at a $1,000 fine," Chief Preston said. "If they set a Dumpster on fire, they're looking at a third-degree arson charge and one to three years in prison.

"For years people have said, `It's dangerous,' " he said. "Now, it's dangerous and there are serious consequences."

Sunnyside Up, a private group trying redevelop and revitalize the student-dominated section of the city called Sunnyside, is financing the "Learn Not to Burn" campaign, which includes door hangers, magnets, banners, trash bin stickers, flyers and surveillance cameras in traditionally problematic areas.

WVU students have a long history of setting fires to celebrate sports victories or other events

On a single night in May, firefighters had to battle 22 blazes when thousands of people poured into the streets to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. They torched couches, mattresses and trash bins, among other things.


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