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Responding to Violence, Suicide, Psychosis and Trauma

What makes an arsonist?

Fires don’t come any more dramatic than those that have blazed across the Australian bush this week. The bushfires, helped by record summer temperatures and nourished to deadly effect by gales, have left a trail of deaths, injuries and homelessness in their fast-moving wake. Their ferocity has horrified all who have come into contact with them.Well, nearly all. Perhaps one or more individuals will have been watching the flames excitedly and gazing upon their own handiwork. Two people have already been charged with arson, and more arrests are expected.

Why would anybody start a fire intentionally, let alone one that results in so many deaths? In the case of the Australian bushfires we don’t yet know, but when those responsible put a flame to the tinder, they, like all arsonists, had their motivations. It may have been mindless vandalism or an act of bravado to impress delinquent friends; a quest to stir up a little excitement, or a plot to gain an insurance payout. The motive may even have been sexual – for some pyromaniacs (compulsive fire-starters who have a psychiatric condition that leaves them with an uncontrollable urge to start fires), nothing holds more erotic charge than a lit match. And there are remarkably few treatments or interventions for serial offenders, although Rampton Hospital in Nottinghamshire runs a treatment programme for the most dangerous arsonists.

An obsession with fire can start very young, according to Dr Louise Almond, a psychologist at Liverpool University who has studied the motivations of arsonists in Britain. “Many children between the ages of 5 and 10 are fascinated with fire and want to play with matches,” she says. “This is a normal fascination but it can grow into a curiosity-driven behaviour with their own property, so they may set fire to their toys.” In some cases the consequences are tragic – a handful of children are killed each year in this way. (Some scientists have speculated that a fondness for “fire-play” is a natural consequence of our evolutionary history, and that pyromania happens when the brain circuits that allow us to deal with fire go wrong.)

Of the children – mostly boys – who indulge their curiosity about fire, some 40 per cent persist with the behaviour into their teens; they tend to be children with higher levels of behavioural and psychological problems. But not all arsonists start their behaviour in childhood. Some come to it later in life.

People who start fires deliberately fall into distinct categories. Some are simply hooligans, and their crimes come under the heading of “vandalism”. They are not necessarily mentally disturbed but are prone to antisocial behaviour, such as truanting. For them, starting a fire may achieve the same pointless end as smashing a window.Their targets – often schools – are opportunistic, and the fire might be started by a youth keen to show off to his friends. According to The Burning Issue, a 2002 report on arson written by academics for the Government, to which Dr Almond contributed, this sort of incident accounts for about a third of deliberate fires and is more common in socially deprived areas.

Another category is the “malicious firesetter”, who uses fire as a weapon to get back at someone or something. It is not unheard-of for disgruntled former employees to wreak revenge on their bosses in this way, or for a divorced man to set fire to his ex-wife’s house. It has been mooted that someone with a grievance against the Australian Government might be motivated to start a bushfire, because it devastates Government-owned land.

Then there is the “criminal firesetter”, who lights the petrol-doused rag for criminal reasons – perhaps to cover up another crime, such as murder or robbery. Joyriders often burn out the cars they steal, to cover their tracks. Criminal firesetters may simply want an insurance payout for an old car or a business that is about to go into liquidation. Dr Almond says: “We know there are professional fire-setters out there, who will use very sophisticated techniques to burn down, say, a failing business. They use lots of accelerants and start fires in multiple places. But they are not easy to track down – it’s like trying to find a hitman.” She notes that there has been a rise in vehicle arson as the value of scrap metal has plummeted – now more people are setting fire to their cars to claim on the insurance.

But perhaps the most perplexing category is the person who starts a fire for reasons of “emotional expression” (also known as psychological fire-setting). This category, which accounts for just over a quarter of fires started deliberately, encompasses pyromaniacs, who find a kind of release, sometimes sexual, in starting fires (and sometimes achieve gratification through watching the fire brigade dealing with their activities). Pyromania is a psychiatric condition that can be treated with drugs but, as with other mental health problems, the results of drug treatment vary from patient to patient.

Pyromaniacs represent only a small proportion of emotionally motivated fire-starters. “Some people use fire as a way of communicating their pain, or as a cry for attention,” Dr Almond says.

Among those in the “emotional” classification is the would-be hero who starts the fire, then rushes to report it and/or deal with it. Firefighters and security guards have been known to do this. Fleur Lombard, the first female firefighter to die during peacetime, was a victim of this type of arson in 1996. Martin Cody, a security guard, spent a troubled childhood dreaming of becoming a hero, and started a fire in a Bristol supermarket on his first day at work. He even helped the deputy manager to escape it, by smashing a window. Cody phoned a friend to boast about what he had done. Unfortunately, Lombard did not survive the fire and Cody was jailed for manslaughter and arson.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Australia continues to unfold. In 2004, the Australian Institute of Criminology recognised that bushfires started deliberately were a specific form of arson that needed closer investigation. It reported that “in most cases it is likely that adults who set bushfires do so for excitement or thrills, or the need for attention”.

The report also raised the disturbing prospect that some fire-setters, seeing bushfires splashed all over the media, could be tempted to add their own efforts, whether they were thrill-seekers or motivated by the prospect of being hailed a hero: “The response of fire services may be rapid and on a large scale, and is likely to be heightened by a sense of urgency which adds to the overall experience.

“The existence of other fires and community concern will increase the likelihood of extensive media coverage. This, in turn, will increase the potential for community recognition and the according of ‘hero’ status to those for whom this is a motivating factor.”

But perhaps we can only truly understand by listening to the words of an emotional fire-starter. Sarah Wheaton – a pseudonym – once wrote of her life as a pyromaniac for the American Psychiatric Association.

She wrote that she “revel(s) in the notoriety of the unknown fire-setter”, even if it was someone else who dropped the match: “I watch the local news broadcasts for fires that have been set each day and read the local newspapers in search of articles dealing with suspicious fires. I read literature about fires, fire-setters, pyromania, pyromaniacs, arson and arsonists. I contact government agencies about fire information and keep up-to-date on the arson detection methods that investigators use. I watch movies and listen to music about fires. My dreams are about fires that I have set, want to set or wish I had set…

“A fire not my own offers excitement and some tension relief. However, any fire set by someone else is one I wish I had set. The knowledge that there is another fire-setter in the area may spark feelings of competition or envy in me and increase my desire to set bigger and better fires.”

That must be the last thing that those in the Australian bush around Melbourne want to hear.

Terrible legacy of the fire-starters

A fire at an East London warehouse (above) in May 2004 destroyed more than £50million of modern British art, including 16 Damien Hirst paintings and Tracy Emin’s £40,000 tent. Another part of the warehouse had been burgled and the thieves were thought to have started the fire to cover their tracks.

A 15-year-old boy caused £1.5 million in damage to Manor Comprehensive School in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, when he set fire to it. The teenager told police that he hated school and wanted to burn it down so he wouldn’t have to go. He was given three years’ detention.

An arson attack on an Iranian cinema in 1978 claimed more than 400 lives. The country’s Intelligence Service was implicated in causing the fire at the Cinema Rex, but the Shah of Iran at the time, Mohammad Reza, said that Islamic militants were responsible.

In June 2000 a homeless fruit-picker set fire to the Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers, Queensland, Australia, while dozens of teenagers slept inside. Fifteen backpackers were killed, seven of them British. Robert Long, who had a history of mental illness, was sentenced to a minimum of 20 years for the attack.

Rogue property developers were accused of starting forest fires that swept across Greece in summer 2007. More than 60 people died in the blazes, which were fanned by strong winds. It was claimed that arsonists had been paid by developers who wanted to get round planning laws.

Chloe Lambert


Filed under: Other Mental Health, Uncategorized, Violence

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