Definition - Any willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, personal property of another, etc.

Arson: Why do people do it and how can we prevent it?

Arson is a common, costly and complex problem in this country and around the world. Arson affects everyone, invading communities, threatening businesses and family security. Deliberate fire setting is the largest single cause of fires in the UK. It is a problem that leads to loss of life, serious injuries and can result in substantial financial and personal suffering and the visual impact on communities is devastating. The outcome of widespread arson in a community can create degeneration within an area, provoking a loss of business and unemployment (Weiner, 2001; DTLR[1], 2002).

Every week in Britain there are over 2000 arson attacks resulting in excess of 40 million pounds worth of damage and costing the lives of at least two people and injuring over fifty[2]. It is obvious then that arson is serious problem within society today; furthermore arson or ‘firesetting’ is increasing in occurrence at an alarming rate, doubling since 1991 with vehicle arson being the fastest growing type, having trebled during the same time period[3].

Table 1 illustrates the huge overall increase in arson fires, 29% between 1996 and 2001, is almost solely due to the rise in fires in road vehicles. These have risen by 46% over this period and in 2000 accounted for 64% of all arson fires in England and Wales.

The majority of offenders are young and teenage (10-17 year olds) boys who make up 40% of those prosecuted or cautioned for arson. Women make up a very small of those who commit arson, and if they do, it is almost always a revenge motivated attack (Icove and Estepp, 1987). Not all communities suffer the same risk of becoming victims of arson. Nearly half of fires in England and Wales take place in the seven Metropolitan brigades, and there is a strong relationship between arson and other indications of social exclusion. The Arson Scoping Study found that the most socially deprived communities had a risk of an arson attack that was 31 times higher that that of the most affluent areas (Home Office, 1999).

A fascination with fire is part of normal childhood development. Experimenting with fire and playing with matches is part of that development. But for some children the line between playing with fire and fire-setting is crossed and starting fires deliberately becomes part of an aggressive conduct disorder. It has been found that child fire-setters exhibit poor judgement and are less able to anticipate the outcome of their actions. Arsonists as a whole tend to be less able, less socially skilled, have less schooling and are likely to be in unskilled employment, more prone to depression than other types of offenders.

Many are without regular work and ‘boredom’ is often referred to in criminal prosecutions as a reason for the offence (Home Office, 2002). Some young people commit arson/vandalism in groups. The transition from such behaviour to setting fires as a solitary activity could be significant in the development of pathological fire-setting. Some arsonists stay at the scene of their fire, perhaps even calling the fire brigade and helping to fight the fire. Such ‘heroic’ actions have been seen as a way of identifying with the fire officers and gaining social prestige, the result of the fantasy life noted in some arsonists who are dissatisfied with their lives and themselves. Both in hospitals and in prisons arsonists have been found to be lacking in self-confidence and self esteem. They are often emotionally immature and unable to form adult relationships, isolated and ‘loners’. Male arsonists may be sexually dysfunctional, finding difficulty in relationships with women. Arsonists often feel powerless and undervalued, seeing themselves as failures. The act of arson is usually far from being controlled and may be explosive, often following a build-up of anger or tension, and not infrequently accompanied by heavy drinking (Home Office, 2002).

Ongoing studies by the Arson Prevention Bureau show that nearly 20 per cent of all arsonists prosecuted in the criminal courts are said to have been suffering from mental health problems of varying severity. As