RESEARCH LETTER No. 2.6

THE BIG ONES: ARSON

Arson - deliberate fire setting with the intention of destroying or damaging property - is of major concern to society especially when fires are set on hot windy days (Crowe 1999). Most fires in the 1994 fires around Sydney are believed to have been deliberately lit (Crowe 1999) and the same may well be true of the recent spate of fires in the Christmas Eve to New Year period in eastern New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Who would cause such disruption and danger to others?

Faith (1999) refers to the evidence of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in the USA The 83 convicted arsonists in the study set an average of 30 fires and had become arsonists by the time they were 15 years old. Most were male, not well educated and had had periods of juvenile detention. Nearly half had mental health problems. About 40% were looking for revenge, mostly against society in general, while 30% were looking for “excitement”. While these figures may provide a lead to the sorts of people who set fires there may be bias inherent in the analysis because of bias in the types of people who are apprehended most readily (Shea 2002).

Mental illnesses among arsonists, such as manic depression, paranoid schizophrenia and sociopathy, have been highlighted by Hanson (2001 p.317). However, Shea (2002) cautions that: “People with major mental illness may light fires in response to motivations that have nothing to do with their mental illness”.

Most studies of arsonists seems to be in urban settings but the sorts of people involved may well be the same. Muckley (1997), and the other authors noted below, depict fire setters (not all arsonists by Crowes, 1999, definition) as being one of the following types.

(i) The curiosity fire setter, the classic being the child who plays with matches.

(ii) The delinquent fire setter, the one who sets fires as one of a range of antisocial behaviours. Perhaps among these we can include the ‘thrill seekers’ of Dian Williams (quoted by Faith 1999) although she creates a separate category for them. Are these people the main cause of bush fires on bad weather days?

(iii) The revenge fire setter, perhaps a school arsonist. Specific targets for arson are usually in mind (Shea 2002).

(iv) The career arsonist, usually an older person who has been in custody and is chronically angry. Maybe the people who light fires to defraud insurance companies or to cover up other crimes (Shea 2002) fit within this category too. The people who steal cars and set them alight in the bush would appear to fit here but could also be among the ‘delinquents’.

(v) Attention seekers (Shea 2002), people who may be particularly active during periods of personal crisis or as a result of chronically low self-esteem. These people may not only light fires but report them and help put them out.

It would be unwise to assume that the categories identified here are necessarily the best or that each category of behaviour is equally important. “Literature on the characteristics of serial arsonists does help to a certain extent, but there is a wide range of circumstances and underlying factors in the rural and forest environment that provide a stimulus for lighting fires”(Crowe 1999). However, the value of this sort of classification is that it shows how different are the people that set fires and how differently different people might react to television images of severe fires or to routine fire warnings. Remediation of the behaviours of people in these different categories will need to be addressed in different ways. For example, juvenile fire-setter prevention programs have been quite successful (e.g.Muckley 2001). “The key concept here is that of actually addressing behaviour” (Muckley 1999).

Exacerbating the problem are many cultural attitudes in society (manifest among media and politicians but perhaps by all of us to varying extents), and in fire services, revolving around the “talking up” of fires and of the efforts of fire fighters (Crowe 1999). Furthermore, management fires that escape may be addressed too casually (Crowe 1999). Can these attitudes be changed? To the extent that deeper social problems such as “increasing breakdown of family stability” contribute to fire-setting behaviour (Muckley 1997) the problem is a whole-of society problem.

Finally, for fire fighters, a practical set of steps that would seem worthwhile are: to mark the point of origin of all fires (with a tag on a wire stem, say); minimising damage to the site of origin as much as possible (e.g. avoid traffic over it); observe people who may be at the site and report any suspicions you might have to the control centre. Following these simple steps would allow forensic investigators to have their best chance of determining the cause of the fire.

Literature Cited

Crowe, F. The arsonist’s mind. In: Fire! The Australian Experience. Proceedings of the 1999 Seminar. Pp.45-50. National Academies Forum, Australian Academy of Science.

Faith, N. (1999). Blaze. Channel 4 Books (Macmillan), London.

Muckley, A. (1997). Burning up the town. Fire Prevention 298, 33-34.

Muckley, A. (1999). Deliberate fire-setting: an increasing danger. Fire, November 1999, pp. 33-34.

Muckley, A. (2001). Bad behaviour. Fire Prevention 350, 14 - 15.

Shea, P. (2002). The lighting of fires in a bushland setting. Judicial Officers’ Bulletin 14(1), 1- 4, 8.

A. Malcolm Gill
18 April 2002