Ninety percent of firesetters are male. They are preoccupied with fire. They get an emotional release from starting fires. There may be sexual overtones. Some researchers claim firesetters are sexually repressed males who masturbate at the fires they set. Whether this is a fact or not, many firesetters are social outcasts and tend to have unsuccessful relationships with women. Fire gives them an excitement they cannot find elsewhere. Finally, for many, firesetting satisfies their need to be recognized and establishes their sense of self worth.
For others, setting fires is an act of aggression. It allows them to express anger and frustration which they are unable to do in their daily social interaction. Many have repressed rage for authority figures. Some get the satisfaction of “getting away with a crime.”
Often the preoccupation with fire starts in childhood. A child who is “curious” about fire can grow into an anti social and aggressive adolescent. A disfunctional or violent family environment is often a contributing factor. Delinquent firesetters are often bored, and find firesetting provides them with the excitement and stimulation they crave. On the path from youthful misconduct to adult personality disorders, a large percentage of firesetters indulge in alcohol and drug abuse. While adolescent firesetters often engage in fire activity with peer groups, by adulthood, most arsonists are setting fires alone.
Many arsonists give no thought to getting caught. Check out the story of Jim Hough, a serial arsonist who was under surveillance by a CalFire arson team. Hough made a U turn, almost collided with a surveillance team parked by the side of the road, and started a fire just down the road!
Serial arsonists often admit their fires are set in haste, without any sense of planning or organization. Targets are selected at random. Their fires are often set in rapid succession, preceeded by a mounting tension or some sort of precipitating event bringing on stress. Pyromaniacs often report the firesetting was not their own, but that they felt controlled by an external source. Most arsonists are unable to explain their crimes. When Jim Hough was questioned after his arrest, he was asked if he got an adrenalin rush. His response was, “You do a little bit, watching the flames, but then you think: What the fuck did I do that for?”
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN MORE ABOUT SERIAL ARSON, READ MY NOVEL ABOUT A SERIAL ARSONIST – RED FLAG WARNING
Previously I outlined the steps arson investigators take to initially identify the source of a wildland fire. The final step is to isolate an area, possibly as much as an acre, secure it with “fire scene” tape and try to identify the actual source of the fire. Since most wildland fires start with low intensity and burn outward, once the origin area is identified, the trick is to find the ignition source. If other factors are eliminated (lightning, sparks from equipment, power lines, campfire), the investigators will be searching for a DEVICE, possibly as small as a book of matches taped around a cigarette. Often part or all this device will survive the fire. Investigators will look for a SIGNATURE, that is, a device similar to something used previously.
They may tape an area off into three foot wide lanes, and move very slowly, looking at each square foot with binoculars. It will be slow and painstaking work, going through partially burnt foliage, debris, and ashes. It may be like an archaeological dig, with investigators on their hands and knees, carefully crawling along the ground. Footprints and/or tire tracks may be preserved in plaster, and matches, flares, timers, batteries and other components for an incendiary device are often discovered. Finger prints and DNA may actually be obtained. Whatever the analysis of the cause of the fire, and whatever evidence is collected, it must all stand up in a court of law if a conviction is to be obtained.
It has been said that, “It takes a special breed of detective to uncover arson. He’s part fireman and part cop, with a special understanding of fire science and the criminal mind.” (Nova, Hunt for the Serial Arsonist) Most arson investigators have formal law enforcement training. They carry weapons and are regarded as law enforcement officers. CalFire, responsible for investigating fires on California state land, has over 100 arson officers. California is very aggressive in pursuing wildland arson as a result of the heavy financial losses incurred in such fires. The county fire departments in California also have arson and fire investigation units, as well as many cities and towns. Such groups as the San Gabriel Valley Arson Task Force, which is made up of several cities and towns in Southern California, pool their efforts and personnel. It is interesting to note that this particular task force was originally organized by the infamous John Orr, the Glendale, CA fire captain and arson investigator who is serving a life sentence for numerous arson fires in which four people died. Law enforcement officials believe Orr was the most prolific arsonist of the 20th Century, possibly responsible for as many as 2,000 fires between 1984 – 1991.
Additional investigative support comes from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The ATF has the mandate to investigate all church fires in the US, and provides Certified Fire Investigators to assist in the legal and technical investigations of arson fires and to provide expert witnesses. In California, once fire investigators determine that arson has been committed, the Sheriff’s bomb and arson unit may take over the investigation. Fire department investigators tend to have specific expertise in analyzing wildland arson and work closely with the Sheriff’s Department. In the case of the Malibu Corral Fire in 2007, set by a group partying in a cave during a red flag warning and caused $450 million damage, the investigation was a joint effort by LA County Sheriff’s Department, CalFire and LA County Fire Department. The individuals were caught after investigators traced a credit card receipt for firewood from a local supermarket.
Imagine an arson investigator arriving at a wildland fire which has already burned 100 acres. He has to determine whether it was an incendiary fire, and if so, where and how was it started. This is not like walking into a building where arson is suspected. A building has a limited space, with interior walls, and if it was an arson fire, somewhere within those walls, or right outside, burn indicators and evidence will be found. In the wildland, there’s a lot of acreage to cover.
Arson investigators immediately talk to the first responders and seek out any witnesses. These are the people who can give critical information. The first responders may have a good idea where the fire started. Witnesses may have seen someone suspicious. (Note that a normal spectator will run away from a fire. An arsonist often is seen running TOWARD the fire, and often stays around to see the results of his work.) Next, the investigators will try to eliminate causes such as lightning strikes, downed power lines and transformers, passing vehicles, construction work, campfires, or any other activity which might have generated a spark or a flame. Assuming nothing obvious turns up, the painstaking, detailed effort begins, searching for the work of a firesetter.
Fire burns according to scientific principles. A fire will leave physical evidence of its passage which can be identified. Experienced investigators see things in a burnt landscape which are not obvious to the untrained eye. Investigators try to work toward the source of a fire. A full fledged wildland fire may have flame lengths 50 – 100 feet high, but when a fire starts, it is a small flame which smolders and burns along the ground until it gains force. The difference in flame size and heat can be seen after a fire passes through. Investigators work backwoard, from the area of most intense burning to the place where the fire began.
A wildland arson investigation is a search for the indicators which show the direction from which a fire has come. Grass, plants, pine needles and leaves will often freeze in a particular direction when a fire hits (“foliage freeze”). Trees, telephone poles and other flammable objects will often show soot an/or more significant burn marks on a particular side, again showing the direction of the fire (“alligatoring”). Rocks may show chips on the side exposed to fire and heat (“spalling”). A fire will burn in a pattern. If there has been no significant wind, it may burn outward in a circle. If wind is present, the fire may burn in a U or V pattern. A strong Santa Ana, or other wind continually blowing in a particular direction, makes it easier to work backward to the origin.
With luck, investigators may be able to narrow the point of origin down to an acre or less. One problem is that unsuspecting fire crews may destroy evidence at the point of origin during their efforts to extinguish the fire. As soon as the approximate area of the origin is identified, investigators will tie off as much as an acre with plastic tape and flags. Law enforcement personnel may be enlisted to keep the area secure while the search for evidence continues.
Next – The nitty-gritty of searching for evidence. Scanning the ground with binoculars.
If you have been looking at my website, you know that I have written a book called Red Flag Warning, which is about a serial arsonist. I’ve been doing a lot of research and want to share some of what I have learned. The motivations for arson are subtle and complex, but I hope to give some general information which will help the reader understand why arson occurs.
Arson can be a crime which has terrible unintended consequences. Recently in Malibu, we had a case of arson in which some teenagers were partying in a cave. They had a fire which, it is alleged, they carelessly kicked out into the brush. This occurred during a Red Flag Warning (!) which made the fire illegal. The result was a blaze which burned for three days, destroyed 52 homes at a cost of over $400 million. Fortunately, no lives were lost. Did these kids intend to cause that damage? Did they intend to destroy 52 homes? Probably not, but that was the consequence of an arson fire.
Most arson investigators will tell you that the firesetter (that’s what they’re called) doesn’t intend widespread destruction. If not, why does he start fires? By the way, arson is predominately a male activity, there aren’t a lot of female arsonists.
First, lets eliminate some obvious situations. Revenge – a guy’s girlfriend breaks up with him. He gets angry and sets her apartment on fire. That’s revenge. He may not be a fire nut, he just wants to pay her back. Fraud – someone is behind on his car payments. He torches his car and tries to collect the insurance. And, maybe he even claims his $3,000 camera was in the car when it burned. Expand this concept and you have someone burning down an entire building to collect the insurance on a failing business. Hate Crime – someone sets fire to a church or Synagogue. In these cases the reason for the fire is relatively easy to understand. The use of fire is the means to an end.
Now consider the more complex cases where the fire itself is the objective. What kind of a person sets fire to the side of a mountain, or a forest, or a grassland? What kind of person torches an empty building? What does he get out of it? Why does he do it?
Firesetters are classified in categories, and these names will tell you a lot about the type of person involved in arson:
CURIOSITY – generally young children, experimenting.
DELINQUENT – adolescents engaged in a possibly wide range of activities leading to criminal conduct.
THRILL SEEKER – individuals seeking excitement and risk.
EMOTIONALLY DISORDERED- individuals who are emotionally unbalanced and find setting a fire has a calming influence.
THOUGHT DISORDERED – individuals afflicted with a range of illnesses from learning disabilities to full blown schizophrenic behavior.
Added to these general categories the overtones of sexual deviation; drug abuse; physical and mental abuse or neglect, and the reasons a person becomes a firesetter are very complex. For many of these individuals, starting a fire gives them an expression of rage, a sense of accomplishment, or a sense of control over a single event in a life in which they have no control. Conflict in the home and poor role models also play a role.
Next -a discussion about INVESTIGATING AN ARSON FIRE.
In my novel, One Foot in the Black, the wildland firefighters spend a day at Camp 13, the female inmate fire camp in Malibu, helping the inmates build a stone wall. Greg and Jake speculate about the history and private lives of the female inmates.
Camp 13 actually exists. It is up in the Malibu hills, near a private golf club (!), and is run jointly by Los Angeles County Correctional Department and Fire Department. The women in the camp are non-violent offenders. Most are serving sentences of up to five years for drug related offenses, burglaries, identity theft or welfare fraud.
Camp 13 is low security, with ordinary chain link fences. The Camp Superintendent told me he could remember only one instance of an inmate walking away from the camp. For the inmates it is a source of pride to be there, and no one wants to jeopardize the opportunity.
There are approximately 110 women at the camp. They are chosen when they have less than half their sentence left and are not considered a flight risk. Most have approximately two years left to serve, and 5 – 10 are paroled out of the camp every month.
Each day at Camp 13 counts for three days served against the sentence. The inmates come from the Chino Institute for Women, which houses 3,000 inmates. At Chino, the prisoners are paid $1.70 – $3.60 for their prison work. At Camp 13 the women earn an extra $1.00 per hour. As distinguished from male prisoners, there are few racial issues and no gangs among the women inmates.
There is a waiting list of up to 40 inmates, and the opportunity to go to Camp 13 is highly coveted. The women receive some training at Chino before coming to Camp 13.
The facility looks like a beat-up summer camp for kids. It consists of simple one story buildings which house the inmates, corrections officers, and fire supervisors. There are the usual dining halls, laundries, and limited recreational areas.
The women are divided into fire crews of 14. Their job is to cut fire lines and clear brush. They are transported to fires in the same type of fire crew truck used by other wildland firefighters. In many cases they work side-by-side with the paid firefighters on the firelines, although they are kept away from the most dangerous situations.
Two women in each crew operate 21 inch chainsaws (they are the “sawyers”), and one woman helps the saw operators (the “bucker”). The remainder wield shovels, Mcleods (a hoe-rake device, pronounced “mc cloud”) and Pulaskis (a chopping device similar to an axe). On the firelines, as well as at the camp, the women wear distinctive orange jumpsuits, which identify them as prisoners.
I have been out in the field with these women. They are proud of their work and work hard at it. It can be exhausting. They are encouraged and complimented by the firefighters who supervise them. It may be the first time in their lives they are accomplishing something and are getting positive reinforcement.
While the work at Camp 13 clearly helps build the self-esteem of the inmates, it is unfortunate that two-thirds return to the prison system.
Becoming a firefighter is something I have wanted to do almost my whole life…from around the age of five. as I have said to some people, I want to feel the glory of bringing someone’s child, parent, friend, loved one out of harm’s reach. I want to see their face light up with thanks. I want to see the smiling faces of little kids while we pass by their house. I do understand its not always gonna be smiling faces or thanks that I will get, but I’m willing to take that. I wont beat myself up if I give it my best. I know disappointments and heartaches will come, but I’m willing to take that risk to do the job I’ve always dreamed of doing.
I take great pride in my job knowing that when I leave a shift that all my responders get to go home the same way that they came in – safely……and that each and everyone of them get to return another day to do their jobs If I leave my job each day knowing I have made a difference in someone’s life whether it be the caller or my responders I have done my job
I’ve lived in California all my life. When I was about eight years old, I would sit in front of my house and watch the Firefighters train on old abandoned houses. They would use these houses for live burns, teaching the cadets the proper way of fighting a structure fire. Just watching how excited the firemen were, to go in and put the fire out, and how cool they were to all the kids in the neighborhood, knowing that they were there to protect and to save lives – that’s what really gave me the drive to become a Firefighter. Who wouldn’t want to have their office out doors and be there in time of need for those who are in danger or need saving? Plus they get to ride in a really cool bright red engine.
HOLLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Authorities say a blaze that displaced dozens of people from a southwest Michigan apartment complex may have been sparked by a resident trying to cook a squirrel with a propane torch.
Mr. right brought me into the fire
I was only in my second ever relationship when I met him. Mr. Right, I decided when I started to get to know him. He has been firefighting since he was seventeen years old. I always thought it would be fun to marry a real firefighter. I never thought it would become a reality.
His name is Eric. We fell in love. Deep Love. Something I never imagined outside of the movie theater. I am a year younger than he is. When things started getting complicated at home he offered me a home with him and his family. We were engaged by this time and I knew I could finish high school once I moved. I graduated soon after moving to Tucumcari NM. I fell in love with the small town life and with firefighting. They made me an offer to join Eric’s volunteer fire dept. The week before Christmas, 2007, I Joined the rural fire dept for Quay County.<!–more–>
I have learned so much from all of my fellow firefighters. Four of us are women. I am now taking classes to obtain my EMS basic license and soon after my intermediate. Maybe later in life I will get my education to become a paid on call woman firefighter. I just know I have to be strong and push through the comments from the few men that are still against women firefighters. I just know my fiance, soon to be husband, will always be there to help me through it. After all, he is going for the same goal!
God, Please be there for every firefighter out there – men, women and all those in between. Hold them when they are weak, watch over them when they are putting their own lives on the line, be the light in the dark corners of their thoughts and please God help put the wet stuff on the red stuff.