Before the devastating fires of Black Saturday abated, police and fire fighters revealed that some fires were intentionally set. Although shocking, this finding was not surprising since research shows that 13 per cent of bushfires in Australia are deliberately set and 37 per cent more are ‘suspicious' (Bryant, 2008). Rollings (2008) estimates that arson costs $1.6 billion a year in our country. Answering media requests to understand the psychology of firesetting, I was repeatedly asked how it was that someone could set a fire that led to devastation including loss of so many lives. To the media and the public, the fact that some fires were intentionally set was unfathomable. While enough is known about the nature and types of firesetters, our knowledge base is still surprisingly limited and there can be little confidence that psychological interventions are effective in reducing the risk of arsonists re-offending. Here I provide a brief overview of the nature of intentional firesetting, the types of firesetters, approaches to treating firesetters, and the need for greater understanding of the risk and treatment of firesetters - particularly those who set bushfires.
The terminology pertaining to firesetting is confusing. The term ‘firesetter' is an umbrella term used to describe those who intentionally set fires. Arson is a criminal offence that applies to those who intentionally set fires. Pyromania, by contrast, is a term used in mental health to denote those who set fires for pathological reasons.
There is no one ‘profile' or ‘mindset' of a firesetter; the reasons people set fires are varied and complex (Muller, 2009; Quinsey et al., 2006; Willis, 2004). First, some people set fires for instrumental reasons, most often to obtain insurance money or to conceal other crimes. Second, fires are sometimes set for revenge or as a show of force or threat. Third, some people with mental illnesses light fires as a result of psychotic processes. Finally, some set fires pathologically and suffer from a disorder known as pyromania. In addition to these defined groups, it is believed that a number of fires are deliberately set by people who are simply bored or who do not have defined motivations for setting fires. Each of the former four groups will be discussed in turn.
Those who set fires for instrumental reasons do not present particular characteristics nor do they require specialised treatment. Rather, they seek particular outcomes and do not experience intrinsic pleasure from setting fires. Simply stated, their firesetting is goal-directed and purposeful. For this group, the chances that people will die or be harmed by the fire are dependent upon the firesetter's intent to harm or kill others and the uncontrollable nature of many fires.
Like the first group, those who set fires as a show of force or as a threat employ firesetting as a powerful tool due to the innate fear we have of fires and the potential harm that they cause. The characteristics of these firesetters are more similar to others who engage in threatening and harmful behaviour. For this group, the firesetting is merely the means to an end.
A number of fires are set by people who are mentally ill and occur as a product of the mental illness (Harris & Rice, 1996). For these people, they may perceive that the fires they set are for legitimate reasons as a result of delusional thinking. These people are most likely to have schizophrenia and to abuse substances (Quinsey et al., 2006).
Finally, pyromania is categorised by the DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) as an impulse-control disorder. It is characterised by an inability to resist impulses to set fires; an increasing sense of tension before setting fires; an experience of intense pleasure, gratification, or release at the time of lighting fires; an interest in fire-related paraphernalia; and a lack of secondary gain (e.g., monetary gain, sociopolitical ideology, concealment of criminal activity, anger or revenge). Although the most interesting, this is also the most controversial category.
The relative proportion of firesetter types varies in the literature, depending on the particular population being sampled (Muller, 2009). The smallest group is doubtless those diagnosed with pyromania (ranging from 0-40 per cent across samples). By contrast, most firesetters have instrumental motivations, including revenge or financial gain. Drawing on psychodynamic explanations for firesetting, it was once believed that firesetting was sexually motivated. Although it does occur, it is only in a tiny number of cases. Other rare reasons for lighting fires include the opportunity they provide for the firesetter to ‘rescue' the people or property affected, thereby attaining hero status.
Based on available information, and the fact that the vast majority of fires that are intentionally set do not result in people being harmed or killed, most firesetters do not desire to cause physical harm to anyone. In fact, most fires are set in abandoned or vacant structures - or in the bush. A relatively small yet unknown number of firesetters, however, are indifferent to the harm they may or do cause others. Finally, only a tiny minority of firesetters, including pyromaniacs, have a desire to injure or kill people who fall victim to the fires they light. The risk with firesetters as a group, though, for causing property damage is great and the risk of harm to others can be significant, depending on their motivation and the nature of the fires they set. For pyromaniacs, along with an all-too-often desire to light larger and more spectacular fires, comes the increased risk of damage to property and life.
All firesetting raises significant concerns due to the often unforeseen nature of fire and the devastating consequences that can ensue. Those who set fires for instrumental reasons, or as a means to frighten or control others, can usually be dissuaded from lighting fires by conventional fear of punishment and retribution if they are caught. Research and clinical experience shows that some firesetters, though, light hundreds of fires over time. Given the pathological nature of their firesetting, for example, pyromaniacs have a great deal of difficulty simply refraining from thinking about and setting fires.
One area that requires more concerted research is how we can identify which firesetters are at greatest risk for re-offending (Brett, 2004). In particular, we need to know more about risk factors for those who repeatedly set bushfires. The so-called ‘profiles' of firesetters are quite nebulous, similar to other general offenders, and generally useless for identifying individual firesetters or determining which ones are at risk for re-offending (i.e., young, white, lower status males who are socially limited, unemployed, substance using, and often criminally versatile).
As with other offenders, it is less common that firesetters are ‘exclusive' offenders (i.e., only offend by committing arson). Most typically, arsonists commit a range of other offences. In fact, arson re-offence rates are quite low - often found to be in the single digits (Brett, 2004).
Some research has focused on risk factors associated with repeat firesetting per se (see Quinsey et al., 2006). Factors that have been found to be most strongly related to risk of future firesetting include: history of firesetting (with greater numbers of past fires related to increased risk for future firesetting); young age at which the firesetting commenced; lower levels of intelligence (although this may reflect the ones who get caught); and a history of aggression in adulthood. While helpful in identifying arsonists at an increased level of risk for future firesetting, this work is still limited.
It must be said that some fire prevention strategies have shown promise in reducing the occurrence of arson (see Muller, 2009). Many prevention programs are psycho-educational in nature, teaching children and adults the dangers of fires. Unfortunately, psychological interventions for firesetters are still understudied and equivocal in effect (Palmer, Caulfield, & Hollin, 2005). Palmer and her colleagues highlight the importance of assessment to inform the establishment of appropriate individualised interventions. Assessments and interventions must take individual, family and environmental factors into account. Of course, attention needs to be focused on the aspects of the firesetting incidents as well (i.e., the person's intent, social context, personal and emotional reactions, and the consequences of the fire).
Psychology in general, and forensic psychology in particular, has an important role to play in understanding and treating firesetters. Given the significance and devastating consequences of intentional firesetting, more attention is required in this area. In particular, further work is required in Australia to understand those who set bushfires. This information will help identify factors that need to be addressed in the development and implementation of individualised and group treatment programs for firesettings. Given the similarities of firesetters to other offenders, and the fact that most firesetters who do re-offend commit general offences rather than arson, doubtless offence-related and offence-specific foci are required. The efforts of psychologists in these regards may assist in explaining the unfathomable, and ultimately aid in reducing the devastation caused by firesetters.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC: Author.
Brett, A. (2004). ‘Kindling theory' in arson: How dangerous are firesetters? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 38, 419-425.
Bryant, C. (2008). Understanding bushfire: trends in deliberate vegetation fires in Australia. Technical and background paper series no. 27. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
Harris, G., & Rice, M. (1996). A typology of mentally disordered firesetters and the fires they set. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 11, 364-375.
Muller, D. (2009). Using crime prevention to reduce deliberate bushfires in Australia. Australian Institute of Criminology Reports, Research and Public Policy Series 98.
Palmer E., Caulfield, L., & Hollin, C. (1995). Evaluation of interventions with arsonists and young firesetters. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: London.
Quinsey, V., Rice, M., Harris, G., & Cormier, C. (2006). Violent offenders: Appraising and managing risk. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Willis, M. (2004). Bushfire arson: A review of the literature. Research and public policy series no. 61. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.