The psychology of arson: Part one
By Peter Collins
By Peter Collins
Profiling a fire setter is difficult because the characteristics of arsonists are often too general. Some arsonists are emotionally-based, others are goal-directed and some are a combination of the two. The size of the fire has little to do with the motivation of the arsonist. Perhaps the most challenging aspects of arson investigations is determining the arsonist’s intent and motive—the impulse, reason or incentive that causes this behaviour. In this two-part series we will examine the more common offender-based motives of the fire setter.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), arson is the crime of maliciously and intentionally or recklessly starting a fire or causing an explosion. An incendiary fire is when the fire is intentionally ignited in an area or under circumstances when/where there should not have been a fire. Mass arson involves an offender who sets three or four more fires at the same site or location within a limited time frame. Spree arson occurs when the three or more fires are set at separate locations with no emotional cooling-off period in between. Serial arson involves an offender who sets three or four more fires with a cooling-off period/delay between fires.
The excitement-motivated fire setter is excited by the actual fire setting and very often the activities surrounding the fire suppression efforts. The thrill could also include the pathological need for attention. Unlike other fire setters, these individuals may stay on the scene in order to be in a position to respond to the fire and become a “hero”. Some will mingle in the crowd to watch the fire and/or return later to assess the damage. Typically, vegetation, stacks of lumber, construction sites, dumpsters and abandoned properties are targeted, but occupied residential property may be as well. A match/cigarette delay device is often used especially for vegetation fires but simple incendiary devices can also be utilized.
Typically, these offenders are adolescent or young adult males. They may already have a history of “nuisance” offences and are perceived by others as being socially inept. They are known to keep journals, notes, records and maps documenting the fires as well as newspaper articles about the fires. They often have police/fire scanner apps on their smart phone as well.
I have been consulted on cases where the fire setter turns out to be a member of the volunteer fire department in their community. In the 2016 book, The Arsonist Profiles: Analyzing Arson Motives and Behavior, author Ed Nordskog writes that many firefighter arsonists are “well regarded, gung-ho types” who are peer group leaders and viewed as adrenaline junkies within their departments. They consider their job as a firefighter more like a religion than a profession. Another trait, Nordskog notes, is that some have a history of immature behaviour and aggressive driving histories.
Vandalism-motivated arson is malicious or mischievous fire-setting that results in damage to property. Sometimes the fire will be set whenever the opportunity arises, but most are set after school/work hours or on weekends. Typically, they will use available material to set fires with matches or cigarette lighters. Due to using available material, fingerprints and shoe prints are often left behind, as well as matches, cigarettes, fireworks and spray paint cans if “tagging” was involved. Vegetation, residential areas and schools are common targets.
The vandalism-motivated arsonist may not just be a single offender; sometimes
they are a group of juvenile males who likely still live at home with their parents. The offender(s) may already be known to the police. Typically, they live within 1.5 kilometres from the crime scene and walk or ride their bikes to the scene. Usually, they will leave the scene after setting the fire and often won’t return to watch the firefighting activities that generates. Authors of Kirk’s Fire Investigation -Eighth Edition, David J. Icove and Gerald A. Haynes, found that, on average, vandalism arsonists will be questioned twice before being arrested and charged. They tend to minimize their responsibility and externalize the blame.
Revenge and spite motivated fires are set in retaliation for a real or imagined injustice perceived by the offender. Revenge can also be a component of vandalism fires and some researchers assert that revenge is a motive in all arsons to some degree.
The victim generally has a history of interpersonal or professional conflict with the offender (landlord/tenant dispute, employee/employer, lover’s triangle etc.). The fires can be set months or years after the precipitating incident. Former intimate offenders frequently burn clothing, bedding and/or personal effects. Female offenders often target something of significance to the victim, such as their vehicle or personal effects.
Societal revenge fire setters often target institutions, government facilities, corporations and universities. Revenge arsonists tend to have below-average intelligence and often commit the crime in a highly-emotional state while under the influence of alcohol.
According to Icove and Haynes, the offenders are predominantly adult males who live in a rental property. They are often considered “loners” and have a history of unstable relationships. Often, they have had previous law enforcement contact for break and enters, theft and vandalism. Revenge and spite motivated fires are some of the more serious arsons, typically due to the emotionality involved.
Pyromania is quite rare. The motivation for setting the fire is sexual—some even masturbate after setting the fire. In the past 35 years, I have only had one case involving an individual who was sexually aroused by setting fires and by calling 911 in order to see the response. After he was arrested, charged and paraded before the bookings sergeant, he was allowed a phone call. He called 911 to report a fire.
Part two of this arson series will discuss crime concealment arson and profit-motivated arson.
Icove, D. & Haynes, G. (2018) Arson Crime Scene Analysis. Kirk’s Fire Investigation -Eighth Edition. New York: Pearson; National Fire Protection Association (2017) Fire and Explosion Investigations.
Nordskog, E (2016) The Arson Profiles analysing arson motives and behavior. North Charleston, NC: Separate Space Independent Publishing;
Sapp, A. et al (1996) A Report of Essential Findings from a Study of Serial Arsonists. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, FBI Academy: Quantico, VA.
Dr. Peter Collins is the operational forensic psychiatrist with the Ontario Provincial Police’s Criminal Behaviour Analysis Section. He is also a member of the crisis/hostage negotiation team of the Toronto Police Service Emergency Task Force. Dr. Collins’ opinions are his own. Contact him at email@example.com.