Arson can be defined in many ways. One definition that helps me keep arson in a useful perspective is that it is a violent crime with a 15-percent clearance rate. It is a criminal act. not a clinical condition. Newspaper accounts of deliberately set fires often use the term “pyromania” to avoid using the word arson repeatedly.

The truth is that pyromania is a veryrare, specifically defined clinical disorder—even among firesetters! The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has classified it as an “impulse control disorder” characterized by the following:

  • deliberate and purposeful firesetting on more than one occasion;
  • tension or emotional arousal before the act;
  • fascination with, interest in. curiosity about, or attraction to fire and its situational context or associated characteristics such as paraphernalia, uses, consequences, exposure to fires; and
  • intense pleasure, gratification, or relief when setting fires or when witnessing or participating in their aftermath.

The APA’s definition of pyromania specifically excludes acts of firesetting committed for monetary gain, as an expression of sociopolitical ideology, to conceal criminal activity, to express anger or vengeance, to improve one’s living circumstances, and as a response to a delusion or hallucination.


Arson is a highly complex behavior and cannot be easily broken down into simple cause-and-effect relationships. Sometimes, even the arsonist isn’t aware of the real reason for his action. In my experience in many cases, arsonists initially gave a reason for having set the fire; but as our conversation continued, it became clear to me that the reason offered was only one of several contributing factors.

The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) has identified the following primary motives for arson.

  • Revenge. The most common motive, revenge can be directed at a very broad range of targets or a specific individual. “Society in general” sometimes is the arsonist’s target. This class of arsonist is dangerous and unpredictable. These individuals can travel great distances between fires, and any target is fair game. They often feel that life has dealt them a lousyhand, and they are out to even the score.

Some arsonists may select their targets on a more general basis. For example, a firesetter upset with “government” maytry to burn down a public library, a forest service shack, or a town hall. In such cases, it would be difficult for arson investigators to connect the targets. The revenge also may be directed against specific groups based on religion, ethnicity, or race. Most frequently, revenge arson is targeted at an individual and can be motivated by any scenario of conflict imaginable Domestic violence; boss/employ ee, teacher/student. and neighbor disputes: narcotics turf wars; retaliation tor a perceived slight; and the desire to eliminate competition all can trigger a revenge arson. When you think of arson as simply another tool of the felon—fire instead of a knife, gun. or blunt instrument —you recognize the many possibilities that exist for revenge against individuals through acts of arson.

  • Excitement. Bored teenagers looking for “something to do” sometimes set fires in rural areas The fires often are nonstructural but nevertheless costly.
  • Vandalism. Schools most often are the target of this motivator Obviously, there is some potential here for overlap with revenge.
  • Profit. Insurance fraud is the most common objective in this category. (>ther possibilities include burning down substandard housing to be relocated to a hotel.
  • Crime concealment. Criminals sometimes turn to arson to burn away evidence that could tie them to a crime.

In addition to the above-mentioned arson motivators is that of relieving psy chological pressure —psychodynamic motivators. Arson, for example, can have symbolic sexual meaning for the arsonist, particularly when the act is followed by a perceived reward in the form of relief of psychological pressure. Firesetting can represent a variety of nonsexual and sexual stressors, especially family conflicts.

Clinical literature shows that a characteristic frequently shared by arsonists is the absence of a father in the home. This variable has been identified in different cultures and among various populations, including arsonists who are jailed, hospitalized, mentally ill, and not mentally ill.


Some research studies have shown that many arsonists share several characteristics. A 1983 study conducted in France compared arsonists who had been diagnosed as having mental illness with a group that had been diagnosed as having no mental illness. (French law requires psychiatric interviews of convicted felons; all convicted arsonists, therefore, are clinically examined.) One of the 27 hospitalized arsonists was female. Their averageage was 2 i, and I t of them were unemployed Of the 23 jailed arsonists, one was female. Their average age was 28. and five were jobless. Of the 31 employed arsonists in this study, 1(> were laborers. These AO arsonists had set 152 tires, more of them in rural areas than in cities. Onethird of all the arsons were alcohol-related.

Almost all the fires were set in familiar territory, such as the property of immediate neighbors, work sites, and relatives’ homes, with the majority of them occurring within a mile of the arsonists’ homes. This finding is of some significance to arson investigators, since one of the suggestions made to neighborhood watch groups is to take down the license plate numbers of strange cars in their neighborhoods.

Another interesting finding coming out of the French study was that the arsonists averaged six siblings. This gave rise to some speculation that attention seeking might be part of the motivation for setting fires.

A 14-year study of 180 Finnish arsonists w-ho had set 331 fires, conducted in Helsinki, revealed many of the same findings as the French study. The arsonists were overwhelmingly male (86 percent), were young, and had no fathers in their homes. The typical arsonist in the Helsinki study had little formal education, was single, and was a tenant w’ith low to moderate intelligence who had a previous history of crime against property. He had clear ties to the target building or lived nearby. Ninety percent of the fires were set on weekends, 85 percent were set while the arsonist was intoxicated, and 74 percent took place after sundown.

A Canadian study also confirmed the characteristics of the typical arsonist: a young male, living alone, working as a laborer, and coming from a large family with an absent father. In addition, he had poor school and/or work records and set fires within a mile of the area in which he lived. More than three-quarters of the Canadian fires were set between six p.m. and six a m. Another motive identified in this group was the “opportunity to display heroism.” According to this study and other studies, the arsonists frequently called the fire department, evacuated buildings, and assisted in extinguishing the fires.


The serial arsonist is defined as one who has been involved in setting three or more fires, with cooling-off periods of varying duration (days, weeks, or even years) between incidents. This individual typically is a white, single male between the ages of 20 and 27 w ho comes from an unstable family, is poorly adjusted socially and often sexually; and exhibits behavior consistent with his developmental age rather than his chronological age. The individual often displays infantile behavior and explosive rage and presents a sloppy appearance. The motives serial arsonists most often cite for firesetting are revenge and relief of personal stress.


The arsonist often goes through a period of increased personal stress prior to the firesetting behavior. The stress can be the result of a stress-producing precipitant such as illness, death, or loss of a job, or it could be produced by a situation that is uniquely stressful to the arsonist (perceived slight). Anniversaries marking prior stressful events could precipitate a buildup of tension. The arsonist often feels powerless to deal with the stress; lacking the internal means for coping with frustration, the arsonist acts out when things go wrong. Undereducated and undersocialized, the arsonist experiences strong displeasure w’hen his needs for interpersonal support are not met. All these deficits lead to rage, which is discharged when the fire is set.

An arsonist may seek comfort in fantasizing about firesetting for weeks without actually setting a fire. The fantasies contribute to the tension experienced during prefire anxiety. This reported anxiety suggests that the individual is aware of the potential danger and punitive consequences. This aw-areness, however, (or post-fire guilt) does not alter the firesetting behavior. As noted above, the firesetter often reports the fire or actively participates in firefighting, producing a feeling of pride or power and enhancing selfesteem for the moment.


As troubling and embarrassing as it is, the phenomenon of the firefighter/arsonist is well-known. Not a year goes by that we do not read about firefighters being arrested for setting fires. The fact is, firefighting is overwhelmingly a young man’s job; and to the extent that some firefighters match the general profile of some arsonists, we must be aware of the unfortunate possibilities, however discomforting they may be to contemplate.

The arsonist often has a limited viewof the world and the way it works. He often is very self-centered, not caring about the consequences of his behavior beyond the relief of his own tension. Unfortunately, many people in our society fit the profile of the typical arsonist. Bringing characteristics and behaviors of the typical arsonist into a sharper focus may help to narrow the field of suspects in your areas.

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