The role of mental illness in arson can be complex. It is often assumed that fire-setters are mentally disturbed. Even if an arsonist does have a psychiatric illness, this may not be a contributing factor in the fire-setting behavior, or may be only one of many factors. Pyromania is an established psychiatric diagnosis; however, there are very few true pyromaniacs.
Arson is responsible for approximately 25% of all fires; more than 500,000 arson fires occur each year. Arson is the most expensive crime in America, costing more than $2 billion a year in property loss. The federal Anti-Arson Act of 1982 established arson as a violent crime. Arson claims over 700 lives annually. Arson is also a very difficult crime to solve; only 15% of arson cases are closed by arrest, and only two percent are closed by conviction. The biggest problem in solving arson is that evidence is destroyed immediately or altered significantly. Juveniles account for 55% of all arson-related arrests.
From January 1 to November 1 of this year there have been 77,279 wildfires in the United States. 9,249,328 acres have burned. Two of Southern California's 35 fires the last week of October have been officially determined to have been deliberately set, including the 25,000-acre Santiago fire in Orange County; however investigations continue.
The California Department of Forestry reported that in 2003-2004 there were 767 wildfires caused by arson, almost seven percent of the state's total wildfires. Additionally, there were 1,692 wildfires during those two years whose origin was never discovered. How many were arson? Ultimately, we may never know. The media attention devoted to catastrophic wildfires often fuels copycat arsonists.
Motives for Arson
Motive is defined as the inner drive or impulse that is the cause, reason, or incentive that induces or prompts a specific behavior. Motives for arson vary and can be abstract. Understanding why individuals set fires is paramount for any arson investigation. Arsonists tend to rationalize their crime, project external blame, and minimize the consequences. Professionals in forensic psychiatry, criminal and fire investigation have developed classifications related to the motives behind fire-setting.