Neuroscientist & Author

California wildfires–What sort of person is compelled to commit arson?

Something more can be done in addition to environmental action to help prevent wildfires. 

First published in Psychology Today.

The inferno of tragic fires in California has destroyed thousands of homes, incinerated hundreds of thousands of acres, and killed many people this year.  In the latest, the entire town of Paradise was reduced to smoldering ash.  Highlighting the vulnerability of anyone and anything to the destructive power of wildfire, among the homes lost in this week’s California fires include those of celebrities, Miley Cyrus, Neil Young, and Gerard Butler.   The current blazes are still raging out of control, and it is too soon to know the causes and full extent of the destruction, but some of these California fires were ignited intentionally.  A 51-year old man has been charged with starting the Southern California Holy Fire.  A 32-year old man has been linked to 5 California fires.   What sort of person is compelled by pyromania to kill, terrorize, destroy lives and property, and devastate the beauty of nature with fire?

Although President Trump has pointed fingers of blame at California for its environmental policies as the root cause of these infernos, the problem is hardly unique to that state.  Between April 2016 and March 2017 there were 76,106 fires in England that were set deliberately, according to Tyler et al.,resulting in 1,027 casualties and 47 deaths.  The financial losses are staggering—1.7 billion British pounds.  The same study finds that in the United States there are an estimated 261,330 deliberately set fires reported every year, costing approximately 1 billion in property damage and 440 deaths.

Arson can be used as a weapon of revenge or motivated by some other conniving, covert, destructive aim, but fire-setting is also an irresistible compulsion for some, recognized as a form of mental illness.  More research is needed, but typically, fire-setting is viewed not as a distinct disorder, but as a behavior that stems from another deep-seated pathology.

Research shows that fire-setters are significantly more likely to have been registered with psychiatric services compared with other criminal offenders, and four times more likely compared with community controls.  Estimates range from 10% to 50% of patients who are admitted to medium secure forensic mental health services have a record of deliberate fire-setting.  Fire-setting in adolescence and early adulthood predicts schizophrenia in later life.  Fire-setting behavior is associated with animal cruelty in juveniles; the other statistically significant risk factors being male gender, and the victim of sexual abuse.  Arsonists differ from typical violent offenders in being more socially isolated and lacking coping skills, and the prevalence of suicide is significantly higher than controls.  Females are reported to commit nearly one-third of deliberately set fires, but less is known about the psychopathological and criminal characteristics of female fire-setters.  Female fire-setters in a recent study were more often diagnosed with depression, substance abuse, and personality disorder than male arsonists.

Fire-setters appear to be a discrete group of criminal offenders with a distinguishing constellation of psychological characteristics.  This suggests the necessity of specialized treatment to target these individuals in prison and before they become offenders.   Greater research is needed to guide treatment effectively, but a small study of 63 male and female patents with a history of deliberate fire-setting, published by Tyler and colleagues in 2018, has tracked the efficacy of intervention programs for the mentally disordered offenders.  The results suggest that the treatments significantly reduced the compulsion to start fires, but far more research is necessary to extend and confirm this small-scale study.

Views toward arsonists have changed over time, according to a 2018 review of pyromania in Western Europe between the years of 1800-1950, by Lydiy Dalhuisen, a criminologist at Ultrecht University.   The data show the pendulum swinging back and forth from being viewed as a crime to being regarded as a mental illness.  If viewed as an illness, punishing arsonists for a form of insanity becomes an ethical dilemma, but there is no doubt that more needs to be done to reduce the horrific destruction by fire that society is suffering.

While current debate centers on the influence of climate change on the raging number and intensity of wildfires, less attention is given to understanding the mind of the person who would light the match.  Society faces daunting challenges of grappling with altering the global climate, but in looking for ways to prevent the devastating destruction of fires sweeping California and elsewhere, increased support for psychological research and greater mental health services would seem to provide an effective and easily attainable way to fight this inferno.

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