A is for Arson

A ”Serial Arsonist” is someone who habitually and compulsively sets fires.

Under U.S. Law, ”arson” is defined as “the malicious burning of the dwelling of another”, although the actual crime may entail the burning of any structure or object.

It has been noted that many serial arsonists are actually frustrated or disgruntled firefighters, whilst others fall into the category of ”Pyromaniacs”. Children who light fires are normally called “Fire Setters”

Some of the above comes from the criminal minds wikipedia.

Pathology of Arsonists

The motivation or compulsion for arson can be driven by several factors –

  • Revenge or Retaliation for “persecution” – often practiced by youths as a means of revenge. If the arsonist sets fire as an act of revenge against society, rather than a perceived wrongful individual, it’s been found that they are more likely to continue setting fires serially. There are various subsets of the juvenile fire setter where you can see the development of a true serial criminal also –
  • Delinquent Fire Setter – typically an adolescent with poor interpersonal skills and a history of behavioural problems – who acts out their aggression by setting fires, uses smoke bombs, fireworks, and sets off false alarms. Typically done in peer groups, and authority areas such as schools or community halls are targeted. Vandalism and Arson – delinquent fire setters often fall into what can be termed ‘Vandelism-arson’ – where arson becomes part of a malicious or wilful act to destroy, which is spontaneous. The majority of these offenders live less than a mile from the arson sites. They are your disorganised serial arsonists. (see below for more on serial arson).
  • Strategic Fire Setter – typically a teenager who has moved on from delinquent crimes, and thinks any legal consequences are a joke. They take a more organised approach – perhaps within a gang. The arsons have more entry points, using accelerants. And there are often other crimes done in conjunction, often all planned, and produced to instill fear or as an act of revenge.
  • Financial gain – to collect insurance benefits from setting fire to their own premises, or by gaining business benefits if eliminating a competitor’s buildings.
  • To cover up other crimes such as murder, etc. The arsonist believes that burning down the crime scene will “erase” the crime. However it is very difficult to completely dispose of a body in fire, so most fire investigators are aware of this, and what to look out for in a fire scene.
  • Terrorism – setting fire to large buildings causes terror for occupants inside and externally, a method used by flying planes into buildings on 9/11 or exploding bombs in community areas. Fire has always been used as a symbol for terror – the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) set fire to crosses and churches to threaten and intimidate others.
  • Malignant Hero (vanity) – you will find this motivation with serial killers, particularly those angels of death in the medical profession. In the case of the hero arsonist, he will set fire to something in order to be the hero in putting it out. As with pyromaniacs, the hero is often found to be working as a fireman, or fire investigator, somebody who has easy access to getting to the fire and being witnessed as putting it out.
  • Pyromania: a sheer, compulsive need to see the destructive effects of fire. There is no motive to this, they are simply feeding their need for fire. Pyromaniacs and other people with mental illnesses account for only 14% of arsons.
  • Sexual gratification – Some also believe that there is a sexual motive for some arsonists.
  • Fire Buff – a fan of fire or firefighters, who will set fires just to watch all the action that ensues, often standing by to watch, or even offering help.
  • Political – similar to the terrorist arsonist, arson is often used for a political agenda. In 30 years, since 1977, according to the National Abortion Federation, 174 arson attacks were reported in the U.S. and Canada, targeting abortion clinics.(Source: Helium1).

You can see that many of the types of arsonists above can perhaps be more easily apprehended if cameras are used to take photos of the witnesses or on-lookers to a fire scene. Although causing controversy recently, the release of facial recognition and assessment software could offer some help in identifying the serial arsonist standing in crowds at the fire scene. Here is a look at one of those systems profiled on the Fast Company website in May 2011.

Legally Arson

Through most courts of law, arson is defined when the following criteria are met –

  1. There is a burning of property. This must be shown to the court to be actual destruction at least in part not just scorching or sooting.
  2. The fire is incendiary in origin. Proof must be established by evidence either through specific forensic findings or by expert testimony that all possible natural or accidental causes have been considered and eliminated.
  3. The fire is proved to be started with malice.

In the U.S.A. arson is normally trialled as a felony, although there are some cases of an arsonist being charged with a misdemenour, criminal mischief, or destruction of property. Depending on the damage caused, convicted arsonists can get terms of inprisonment from 6 months to five years, or life if a person was killed during the fire.

In the U.K. there are different categories of arson under the ‘Criminal Damage Act 1971′ ascertained at levels of intent or recklessness. Court trials of arsonists are judged on the evidence of intent, and whether people have been harmed, or the risk to people from the fire. Inprisonment terms can vary from a few months to life imprisonment for arsons which have caused death. Note that for more minor cases, the convicted arsonist is likely to be released from prison after serving half their term, and tagged with an ankle-tag for the remainder of their sentence.

The Repercussions of Arson

  • In late October of 2007, southern California had 16 fires going at once; two were set by arsonists. The fires “displaced more than a half-million people, destroyed nearly 1900 homes and killed at least seven” people. Eighty people were injured; firefighters were overwhelmed; and the fire scorched over 800 square miles. (Newsweek)
  • A fire in Esperanza killed five firefighters in 2006. Police arrested Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, and charged him with murder. He was actually under investigation for 23 separate fires. On March 19, 2009, a Riverside jury returned a verdict of “death” for Oyler for killing the five firefighters in the Esperanza fire. (L.A. Times)
  • A man who was scorned by a lover set fire to the nightclub where she worked in 1990. He poured gasoline on the only stairway exit and set it afire. Julio Gonzalez was convicted of 174 counts of murder and was sentenced to prison for 25 years to life.
  • The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) caused $12 million in damages to a ski resort in Vail, CO in 1998, and proudly took credit for it. Then they set fire to a five-story condo in CA in 2003, causing $50 million worth of damage. (an example of arson and environmental terrorism).
  • According to the U.S. Fire Administration under FEMA, about 210,000 fires are intentionally set each year, which cause about 375 deaths, 1300 injuries, and about $1 billion a year in property loss and damages. (FEMA “Intentionally Set Fires.”
  • In the case of bushfires, the Australian Institute of Criminology research indicates that Australia has an average of 52,000 bushfires a year with possibly half being either deliberately lit or suspicious. As part of its extensive research on this crime, the AIC has developed a comprehensive bushfire arson prevention handbook to help reduce the number of deliberately lit fires in Australia.
  • Each week in the U.K. there are – 2213 arson attacks, arson kills 2 and injures 53 people, 20 schools or colleges, 262 homes, 360 businesses or public buildings and 1402 cars are damaged or destroyed by arson. Arson costs the economy £53.8M in England and Wales each week. (Source: Cornwall Gov)

Pyromania and Firebugs.

The DSM-IV (1994) includes pyromania as an impulse control disorder. Pyromaniacs do not operate with much of a motive, only a compulsive need to set fires, so they are different from other arsonists. Because of this mental disorder, true pyromaniacs are often unorganised in their methodology of selecting places or times for their fire, although the chronic pyromaniac probably has put together a good toolset of equipment to spark the fires with for whenever the impulse calls.

Due to the fact that they can not only access equipment, knowledge and the means towards lighting, and putting out fires, it’s not surprising that many pyromaniacs find work in the firefighting profession, allowing them to feed their compulsion.

Some fires are started by firemen who are simply attention seekers. Because this type of arsonist is reasonably common, in the U.S.A. a commission was formed in the 1990s to study these firebugs. The commission worked with the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit (see B for Bau) in Quantico, to create a screening test for fire departments to avoid hiring potential firebugs. The numbers lessened from about 40 per year to three. (Source: Helium1).

Serial Arsonists

Arsonists who set fires repeatedly are referred to as serial fire setters.

The NCAVC (see B for BAU) classifies compulsive fire setting as mass, spree or serial, similar to that of serial murders. And as with serial killings, it is generally accepted that the serial arsonist is involved in three or more separate fire setting episodes with a characteristic emotional cooling off period between fires. This period may last days weeks or even years.

Issue 1 – Difficult to Recognise

Serial arson is difficult to recognise, however, making it a serious crime to analyse and locate patterns from. Setting fires is often not a distinct or separate motive for the arsonist – arson is often patterned into crimes of revenge, excitement or even extremist operations.

Victims of the serial arsonist are often randomly selected and the cycle of incidents or cooling down phrases can be unpredictable also. Part of this is because the true pyromaniac (see above) can often work within professions (fire fighter, fire investigator) where he can satisfy his fantasies easily without having to set the fire himself.

Issue 2 – When it is recognised

Serial arsonists often create a climate of fear in the entire community. Leaders then can tend to compound the problem by pressuring law enforcement agencies to identify and quickly apprehend the fire setter. Because of the randomness of some arsons, this added pressure from the powers above may hinder investigators who can often also lack experience in arson. Many smaller cities and towns don’t have fire investigators.

The Serial Arsonist Heuristics

It is often suggested that serial arson is more often a disorganised (see D is for Disorganised vs Organised vs Mixed) crime. This type of arson usually involves a disorganised crime scene where physical evidence is often left behind. The offender frequently uses available materials found at the scene and carries the source of ignition with them (always ready for the compulsion to hit).

The typical offender in this category is usually male, and younger than the single event arsonist. He tends to be a loner, minimally educated and an underachiever with poor interpersonal relationships making him socially inadequate. Often he is unemployed or if he has an employment history it is erratic and involves little or no skill. He may often have a history of substance or drugs, and a history of police arrests for minor charges. He is the delinquent juvenile arsonist.

Because he is so young, and antisocial, it’s also a good bet that the juvenile serial arsonist does not possess a car, so therefore must walk to the scene of the fires. This means he generally lives within a mile of the crime scenes, and is familiar with them. In fact, if he’s ever found at the scenes, it’s likely he can justify being there, and his presence is not questioned.

It is important to analyse the cluster centers of fire activity. The tighter the cluster the closer to the area of significance to the offender. This is an example of geographic profiling (see G for Geographic Profiling) of the scenes of crime.

A subtype of the serial arsonist is the strategic arsonist. This is the older teenager who has become the strategic fire setter (see above). He can work in gangs, plans his fire setting, and is mobile, so can travel to set the fires.

Another smaller subset, but unfortunately becoming more prevalent is the extremist or terrorist serial arsonist. Research suggests that this offender is usually well educated and above average in intelligence. He is highly mobile and focuses his attacks on specific targets. He uses sophisticated incendiary devices. The crime scene is organized and there is little or no physical evidence.

Spree Arson

Sets fire at three or more separate locations with no emotional cooling off period between them.

Mass Arson

Involves one offender who sets three or more fires at the same location during a limited time period.


Fire Setting and the Younger Child

Note that the term ‘fire setting‘ is normally used when talking about children, while ‘arson‘ is used with adults.

Most children are fascinated with campfires, fireplaces, bonfires, etc. That’s natural. It is also quite common for children to experiment with fire setting, but where you get a child who does this consistently, alarm bells should be ringing.

Although it’s been found that fire setting in children is not a valid predictor of future violence and pathology (see below), never-the-less, consistent fire-setting can evidence a chronic problem within the child’s family life, and also often co-relates with other antisocial behaviour – much of which remains a crime, and has heavy costs on the communities impacted by these.

4 Types of Child Fire Setters

In this article at helium, Karen Brandt formulates that there are four types of childhood fire setters (with an overlap into the juvenile types mentioned above) –

  1. The “curious firesetter” is often a boy between three and seven years old who will use a lighter or matches to make a hidden fire and then try to extinguish it.
  2. A five- to ten-year-old who sets fires after a stressful incident may be seeking attention. He is a “crisis firesetter” who is shy, anxious or worried.
  3. The “delinquent firesetter,” who is between 10 and 17 years old, often opposes authority and is influenced by peers. The group sets the fires and often uses accelerants.
  4. The “pathological firesetter,” which includes only about 2% to 3% of cases, is often an 8- to 12-year-old boy who has had a history of abuse; he usually has serious family or peer issues, and he may have medical or neurological problems. This troubled boy will often plan and set fires while avoiding detection.

This same article suggests that

Arson is a felony offense and “arson is the felony with the highest rate of juvenile involvement.” ( Most fire setters – four out of five – are boys, and they fall into four categories.

Arson, sociopathy, MacDonald Triad, and Violence.

Sociopathy and the MacDonald Triad

Fire setting is one of the three factors (along with bed wetting and animal cruelty) in the MacDonald Triad, previously thought to indicate a set of behaviours in children which may precursor their violent or psychopathic behaviour in adulthood. This theory has been dismissed since, but still prevails in some areas. For more, see my own MacDonald Triad post in this series.

Albeit that the triad theory has no supporting evidence, obviously children who do display consistent fire setting behaviours, alongside others such as animal cruelty, or other sociopathic behaviours, may be offering evidence that requires exploration, and certainly correlates often with abuse.

Fire Setting and Anti-social or Violent Behaviour

In September 2006, the Australian Institute of Criminology published its ‘Bushfire Arson Bulletin 36′ with an article entitled ‘Firesetting as a predictor of violence’. (Available as a download from this link), partially in response to the MacDonald Triad assumptions.

This article then later provides some statistics providing some correlation between early childhood fire settings in boys and other antisocial behaviours rather than a predictor of future violence.

Regarding the Triad :

An early study by Hellman and Blackman (1966) found support for the association, with 23 of 31 aggressive patients in a psychiatric treatment centre having a history of all three components (compared with seven of the 53 non-aggressive patients). Examining 1,935 case reports prepared for criminal trials, Heller, Ehrlick and Lester (1984) failed to replicate the findings, but found that defendants charged with a violent crime were more likely to have exhibited cruelty to animals in their past. A more recent Canadian study found that firesetting and animal cruelty in childhood were more commonly found in sexual killers than in other sex offenders (Langevin 2003)

Research suggests that, rather than being a predictor of later violence, firesetting and violent behaviour may co-occur… there appears to be more support for the association between firesetting and cruelty to animals. Sakheim, Osborn and Abrams (1991) for example, found that high risk firesetting (defined as deliberate, planned and persistent behaviour) was associated with cruelty to animals, and also with a number of other variables associated with poor impulse control. Slavkin (2001) also found that cruelty to animals, but not bedwetting, was associated with recidivist firesetting.

Regarding the correlation with violence –

Recent Australian research surveyed 1,359 Australian children aged from four to nine years with a range of measures, and found that firesetting was just one of a range of antisocial behaviours engaged in by children experiencing psychopathology and family stress (Dadds & Fraser 2006). This research found that while there were low levels of firesetting in the population, antisocial behaviour and parental stress were associated with firesetting for both boys and girls, with boys also demonstrating cruelty to animals, hyperactivity and thrill seeking temperaments. This suggests that firesetting in boys may be an effective indicator of chronic antisocial behaviour.

In conclusion, the available literature tends to suggest that persistent firesetting by children and young people is more symptomatic of a wider co-occurring pattern of antisocial behaviour, including cruelty to animals, than it is predictive of later violence.

From the Criminal Profiler tumblr blog

Research of 1,200 juvenile fire-setters in Fresno found a disturbing pattern of psychopathology within the families of fire-setters.

Family dysfunction included: low marital satisfaction, little or no display of affection, ineffectual role modelling, and excessive physical force in disciplining children (Hickey, 1996).

Children frequently report deep feelings of maternal or paternal rejection or neglect.

Juvenile fire-setters commonly report: anxiety, depression, and resentment when feelings of abandonment surface about their relationship with parents or significant others. In turn, the perceived rejection: affects self-esteem, fosters feelings of anger, hatred, and revenge fantasies.

Similar to profiles in psychopathy, fire-setters: have less capacity for internalization, are less able to tolerate anxiety, and are less empathetic and able to form attachments to others. They are often diagnosed as having a Conduct Disorder* and display Antisocial Personality characteristics. Incapable of feeling adequate remorse or guilt, juvenile fire-setters are more prone to be in conflict with authority figures.

The most common psychological and behavioral problems observed in the Fresno group of juvenile fire-setters were:

  • learning problems
  • poor school behavior
  • poor concentration
  • lying
  • excessive anger
  • fighting with siblings
  • disobedient
  • influenced by peers
  • attention seeking
  • impulsive
  • impatient
  • preoccupied with fire
  • very unhappy in dysfunctioning family
  • pronounced need for security and affection

There are several reports and websites to this day that continue to suggest that a childhood firesetting and animal cruelty co-occurence (ie. antisocial behaviour) may predict later violence or even extreme psychopathy. Arson and pyromania appear in many forms, and for many motives, one may be as an act of revenge or retribution against child abuse or neglect, but many motives aren’t linked to this background.

So saying that, any child displaying anti-social behaviour including fire-setting should be offered help to break the compulsion before more damage is sustained by the community, and they move up in the rungs of arson. There are now many outreach programs combining firefighters and psychologists in communities, working to identify and provide therapy for young firesetters.

* The Child Pyromaniac

The true child pyromaniac is an extremely rare occurence. Most children caught as firesetters are diagnosed with a conduct disorder, and antisocial behavioural patterns. The true pyromaniac is somebody who has no motive for their fires – they do it as a compulisive need. Whereas most children as firesetters, certainly do have motives in what they are doing.

The clinician’s handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM, gives six standards that must be met for a child to be officially diagnosed with pyromania.

  1. The child had to have set more than one fire deliberately.
  2. Before setting the fire, the child must have felt some feelings of tension or arousal
  3. The child must show that he is attracted to fire and anything related to fire
  4. The child must feel a sense of relief or satisfaction from setting the fire and witnessing it
  5. The child does not have other motives like revenge, financial motives, delusions or brain damage for setting the fire
  6. This fire setting problem cannot be attributed to other disorders like anti-social personality disorder or conduct disorders.


Citations and References:


More:A to Z of Serious Crime INDEX

  • For more on the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit see B for Bau
  • For more on the FBI’s classifications towards serious crime – see D for Disorganised vs Organised vs Mixed.
  • For more on geographic profiling see G for Geographic Profiling
  • For more on the MacDonald Triad see M for MacDonald Triad
  • For more on different profiles for multiple arsonists start off with M for Multiple Crimes.


This post participated in the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. Find other worthwhile blogs to read, comment on and follow through the A to Z Challenge blog.





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Hunter Emkay writes psychological thrillers set in our contemporary domestic world. Hunter Emkay grew up and moved between small town surburbia to corporate geekiness – and back. Maybe all that surburban excitement has led to a little too much murder on her mind.

11 thoughts on “A is for Arson”

  1. Hi Hunter – pretty thorough exposition .. they want to be considered important and necessary to investigations often .. fire is terrible .. Good A though – Hilary

  2. I seriously LOVE you challenge theme. I think criminology is fascinating. Particularly arson, which as I understand, is symptomatic of lots of mental malfunctions as well. Many serial killers show early signs of arson as I understand it. Great post!
    Happy A-Z challenge!

    1. Hi All.

      Yes, Arson forms one of the earlier indicators for a potential problem in the future, along with animal cruelty. I will later have a post on the MacDonald Triad and the animal cruelty aspect. But as with any particular trait like this, many children who display behavioural issues don’t go on to murder people. Most of this series, however, is about particular aspects of multiple killers – due to the fact I’m writing a psychological thriller.

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