The arsonist’s mind

What makes someone want to set illegal fires?

People who maliciously set fires are not easy to understand, and there have been a number of attempts to draw profiles of the typical arsonist. Many of these profiles start with motivations, which commonly are divided into some of the following categories:

Financial gain: Firefighters looking for work, insurance defrauders and those acting for hire simply do it for the money.

Crime concealment: Someone who has committed a burglary, murder or other crime may set a fire in hope of destroying evidence.

Revenge: Angry individuals who often target an employer, an institution—say, a school by a distraught student—or a jilted lover.

Vandalism: These arsonists are almost always young men or boys who enjoy destroying things.

Excitement: A person who is bored may seek the excitement generated by the sirens, flames, uniforms and destruction.

Political: Activists may see torching a laboratory, military facility or government office as a form of protest.

According to a review of literature by the Australian government’s Institute of Criminology, most arsonists have relationship problems, find social interactions stressful, have limited intelligence and have low self-esteem. Other reviews, however, conclude that arsonists tend to be of average or above-average intelligence and often have stable family lives.

An FBI review found that arsonists in this country overwhelmingly are white and young, tend to come from broken homes and often have drinking problems. The FBI also found some correlation between sexual difficulties and a sense of powerlessness among serial arsonists. Some arsonists find a sexual release in fire setting.

Surprisingly, a fair percentage of arsonists have some association with firefighting. CalFire arson investigator Alan Carlson, who works out of the Redding office, estimated that as many as one in three arson fires is set by someone associated with public safety. He said the arsonist may be motivated by the excitement of the fire or the chance of getting recognition for reporting or fighting it.

But Carlson cautioned that profiles have limited value. He said there are plenty of arsonists like Jim Hough who seem to defy any classification.

Arsonists, he said, “are people from all walks of life.”