Inside an Arsonist's Mind

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.

  1. Excitement: The most common excitement motive is pure thrill-seeking; the suspect enjoys the chaos created by the arson. Excitement offenders may also want recognition as a hero (such as firefighter-arsonists). They crave attention and are excited by the idea that everyone is talking about and looking for them. The ability to create a situation requiring the response of the fire service and law enforcement provides these individuals with a feeling of empowerment over society. Setting an uncontrolled fire is a tremendous exercise in obtaining, demonstrating, maintaining, or acquiring lost power. There may also sexual gratification in fire-setting for some excitement arsonists. Potential targets of the excitement motivated arsonist run full scale from nuisance dumpster fires to occupied apartment buildings during the night. Targets may escalate as the fire-setting of more benign locations no longer provides enough excitement.
  2. Vandalism: Vandalism-motivated arson is defined as malicious or mischievous fire-setting that result in damage to property. Vandalism fires are most often set by juveniles for no apparent reason other than just for fun. These fires are often set by more than one individual, and may be the result of peer or group pressure. Common targets are schools, abandoned structures, and flammable vegetation.
  3. Revenge: Revenge-motivated fires are set in retaliation for some real or perceived injustice. This wrongdoing may have occurred months or years before the current fire-setting activity. Revenge-motivated arson can further be subdivided into four major types of retaliation; personal, societal, institutional, and group. Revenge is the most common motive for a serial arsonist.
  4. Crime Concealment: Arson is the secondary criminal activity in this classification category. The fire is set for the purpose of covering up primary crime(s) such as murder, burglary, auto theft, or the destruction or theft of records. The goal of concealment arson is to eliminate evidence left at a crime scene.
  5. Profit: Arsonists in this category expect profit from their fire-setting, either directly for monetary gain, or indirectly to eliminate debt. The goal is to cause the most possible damage in the least possible time. Examples of profit arson include insurance fraud, liquidating property, dissolving businesses, destroying inventory, eliminating competition, remodel old property , or to gain employment.
  6. Extremist/Terrorist: Arsonists may set fires to further their own or their group's social, political, or religious causes. Examples of extremist/terrorist motivated targets include government buildings, houses of worship, abortion clinics, slaughterhouses, animal laboratories, and furriers. The targets of political terrorists often reflect the focus of the terrorists' wrath. Terrorist arsonists frequently claim their responsibility for the fire and use media attention to draw attention to their specific cause.
  7. No discernible motive--perhaps under the influence of a mental illness: The role of mental illness in arson and fire-setting behavior can be very complex. Even if an arsonist does have a mental illness, this may not be a contributing factor in the crime. For example, a schizophrenic may set a fire out of anger and revenge; psychosis, paranoia, and delusions may or may not be contributing factors. Studies related to the prevalence of mental illness in arsonists are quite misleading related to relatively low rates of arrest and conviction.

The Truth about Pyromania

Pyromania is an established psychiatric diagnosis; however true pyromania is quite rare. The reported incidence of the disorder is less than one percent. Pyromania is a commonly used term that often arises when wildfire arson is suspected. Studies have shown that there is a great deal of misunderstanding among investigators and law enforcement officers about what pyromania really means. The term is used loosely by the media as well as the public as a fit-all label for any kind of malicious and apparently senseless fire-setting.

Pyromania falls into the diagnostic classification of impulse control disorders, along with disorders like kleptomania (stealing), intermittent explosive disorder (violent and destructive outbursts) and pathological gambling. These disorders are characterized by a failure to resist impulses, such as the impulse to light a fire. Simply, pyromania is the uncontrollable impulse to repeatedly set fires with no obvious motive (such as concealment of a crime, financial gain). A pyromaniac experiences arousal, pleasure, gratification, and/or relief when setting a fire, or when witnessing or participating in their aftermath.

Is There a Profile for an Arsonist?

Current profiles are based on the interviews with the relatively few arsonists who have been arrested. As arson motives vary greatly, profiling fire-setters is difficult. The following is a list of the most frequently documented characteristics of a wildfire arsonist; it is not representative of all fire-setters.

  • White male, age 17-26
  • Unstable childhood; often one or both parents missing from home
  • Abuse or neglect by parents
  • Childhood hyperactivity disorder
  • Poor academic performance
  • Antisocial behaviors and other crimes as an adolescent
  • Cold or aggressive relationship with father; overprotective mother
  • If married, poor marital adjustment
  • If not married, still living at home with parents
  • Lack of stable interpersonal relationships; poor social skills
  • Poor occupational adjustment; employed in low-paying jobs often as a laborer
  • Poor military performance
  • Fascination with the fire service
  • Mixed findings on intelligence, but most found to have average to higher intelligence. Although many studies have found arsonists to be of limited intelligence, this finding may be more an indication of those relatively few arsonists who are convicted than the overall arsonist population.
  • Alcoholism and/or substance abuse
  • Mental Illness: personality disorders, depression, schizophrenia, suicidal tendencies

Repeat Arsonists and Mental Illness

Recidivism relates to the tendency of an individual to relapse into criminal behavior. Most arsonists will continue to set fires until they are caught or they find another source of gratification. Mentally disordered fire-setters diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and mental retardation have higher rates of recurrence of fire-setting behavior than non-mentally disordered fire-setters. However, they commit fewer types of other crimes. Recidivism among the mentally retarded arsonists may be explained by the fact that these individuals express anger and frustration through specific and repetitive actions, which may include fire-setting.

The most important diagnostic category of arson recidivists is personality disorders, often combined with alcoholism or other drug addiction. 15% of all American adults (over 30 million people) meet the diagnostic criteria for at least one personality disorder. The most frequently found disorder among arsonists is an antisocial personality disorder. Antisocial individuals often engage in a range of criminal behaviors including fire-setting as well as other destructive acts. The disorder is characterized by a failure to conform to social norms by repeated acts that are illegal, deceitful, impulsive, and aggressive. Such individuals are frequently referred to as psychopaths. They have a reckless disregard for the safety of self or others. They show no remorse for harm caused to others. Most repeat psychopathic arsonists also abuse alcohol and/or drugs, and dramatically increased their usage right before the fire-setting. People with a histrionic personality disorder (HPD) want to be the center of attention. They are dramatic and theatrical and are easily influenced by others. HPD will typically be seen in arsonists motivated by the desire to be in the spotlight or to be seen as a hero. Individuals with a schizotypal personality disorder may believe that fire-setting is necessary or appropriate related to their characteristic odd, bizarre or deluded beliefs and thoughts as well as unusual emotions.

The Future Arsonist

Fire usually captivates children. It is normal for most kids at about age five to be curious about fire, or even start small fires. However, there are children who take this to the next level. The roots of a serial arsonist can be traced to childhood. The hallmark of a future arsonist is an adolescent with a conduct disorder. Behaviors associated with a conduct disorder include aggression, cruelty to people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness, theft, and disregard of parental or school rules. Youths with conduct disorders persistently violate the rights of others. When an adolescent with a conduct disorder starts a fire it will typically be with the intention of causing serious damage and perhaps endangering life. The budding arsonist is most often male and is impulsive.

Red Flags for Parents, Guardians and Educators.

  • Children who start playing with matches or fire as early as age three
  • Children who frequently engage in "daredevil" behavior, especially near fire
  • Children who mix chemicals or engage in "secret" fire settings in which they try different mixtures
  • Those who are noticeably excited while watching fires

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