Australia — Most people who deliberately light bushfires want some sort of change in their life and don’t mean to cause harm, say Australian researchers.
Dr Colleen Bryant of the Australian Institute of Criminology will present research on deliberately lit fires at the Australasian Bushfire Conference 2006 in Brisbane next month.
“There are many reasons why people light fires,” says Bryant. “People are complex and of course the motives are complex.”
While the community often views arsonists as pyromaniacs, Bryant and colleague Matthew Willis say very few deliberately lit fires are due to pyromania.
Willis says in the majority of cases people who deliberately light bushfires do not intend to cause harm.
They don’t tend to turn their mind to consequences of lighting a fire, rather are focused on creating some change in their life.
While some want to relieve boredom by creating havoc and excitement, other arsonists crave recognition or attention, the researchers say.
Some light fires out of anger or protest while others believe they are being altruistic by clearing what they see as dangerous fuel-loads.
Sometimes there are multiple motives.
Targeting fire prevention campaigns
Understanding the motives of people who deliberately light fires can be useful in designing fire prevention campaigns and treatment programs for arsonists, the researchers say.
For example, Willis says people who light fires for excitement will often stay around after the fire to view their handiwork.
He says this suggests fire crews should look around and talk to the people who are there watching.
Knowing that some people light fires just so they can treated as a hero if they report the fire or put it out is also useful, especially for fire services screening new members, says Willis.
“Unfortunately some of those people who light those fires do become members of fire services,” he says. “So [the fire services] can use that [knowledge] as part of their recruitment exercises.”
Bryant says knowing that a certain proportion of people get a thrill out of lighting fires on extreme bushfire days also helps fire services to look out for such people on those days.
Different types of bushfires
As well as deliberately lit fires, there are a small number of human-caused fires that are lit without motive. These include fires due to accidents, people with mental disabilities who lack control over their actions and fires lit by children.
Naturally-caused bushfires, such as those that ravaged Canberra in January 2003, are usually larger and more devastating than those lit by humans. But the researchers say these account for less than 5% of all bushfires.
They say the vast majority of the 30,000 to 40,000 fires that occur across Australia each year are caused by humans, with somewhere around 50% of these being deliberately lit.
Willis, formerly of the Australian Institute of Criminology, analysed decades of studies including psychiatric assessments of arsonists who had lit building fires in towns and cities.
He then adapted the findings to the bush and came up with a motive-based classification system for people who deliberately light bushfires.