Australia — At 8am most days, a school-aged youth scopes bushland west of Dapto, looking for his opportunity to strike.
Believed to be responsible for lighting more than 10 fires in the area since June, he has so far managed to evade authorities, honing his technique along the way.
What he doesn’t know is that someone is on his trail.
Horsley-based criminal behavioural analyst Dean Webb has been monitoring the activities of the fire starter on a private basis for the past five months, largely because the culprit keeps lighting fires in his suburban back yard.
A former police officer and now full-time Illawarra firefighter, Mr Webb, 39, runs an investigation business and is one of a handful of people in the world trained in geographical profiling.
Developed by a Canadian police officer in the 1990s and today used by the FBI, the technique is based on the premise a serial criminal will operate out of habit.
“It’s been known for a long time that humans, given any certain situation, will respond in a predictable way,” Mr Webb said. “Given a situation, they’ll always take the easiest option and that’s the basis of geographical profiling.”
He said most serial criminals operated within a 1.5km radius of their home or workplace, using the same modus operandi.
“They’ll use the same methodology, something they’ve used before and it’s worked and they’ll continue to use it. It’s the least-effort principle,” Mr Webb said.
“If they’re going to light a bushfire, they will either light it with matches or use an incendiary device such as a zip lighter, but they’ll always use the same way.”
Geographical profiling came to the Illawarra’s attention in 2003 when a Canadian profiler was brought in to help investigate the murder of 23-year-old Rachelle Childs, whose body was found at Gerroa.
In 2004, FBI agents assisted in the hunt for a sex offender, accused of 13 rape and indecent assault incidents in Sydney’s inner west.
It has been embraced by Hollywood and has featured in movies such as The Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac. The Kay Scarpetta book series by Patricia Cornwall centres on criminal profiler Benson Wesley. Television series Profiler and Criminal Minds are other examples.
Geographic profiling helped Mr Webb narrow the identity of the Horsley arsonist, whose signature involves lighting more than one fire in the same spot.
All his fires have been started within a 1km radius. He is also suspected to be school-aged.
“His periods of activity coincide with school hours. Previously most of his fire setting was at 3.30pm … Suddenly his pattern was interrupted and he began starting fires at 8am, which means he was most likely on his way to school.”
Mr Webb said many fires were lit by young firebugs and early intervention programs were available for children in recognition that early fire-setting behaviour was not uncommon, primarily in males.
So what separates an inquisitive firebug from a fully fledged arsonist with malicious intent?
“That’s where there’s a lot of conjecture,” Mr Webb said. “No-one agrees.”
Freud linked it to sexual deviance, the flame representing the phallus.
Modern psychologists cite a fixation with emergency services and the hero mentality of being the one to dial triple-0.
Research manager for crime monitoring at the Australian Institute of Criminology, Warwick Jones, said the profile of an average arsonist was difficult to formulate because so few had been caught.
“We’ve tried to develop a profile of arsonists, but the information available is strictly limited, evidence is so mixed,” he said.
A study of NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data in the five years from 2001 to 2006 provides some indication. Of the 133 bushfire arsonists tried in court, 31 per cent were aged under 18. The average age was 26, while males comprised 90 per cent of all offenders.
Updated results show 18 adults and 55 juveniles were charged with 92 offences in 2007-08.
Interestingly, volunteer firefighters account for an estimated one in five blazes.
A high-profile case involved Albury volunteer Peter Cameron Burgess, whose spree of 16 fires across NSW in 2001-02 earned him a two-year jail term.
He told police he was excited by fire and got emotional satisfaction from the praise heaped on volunteer firefighters.
Mr Jones said strong patterns of fire lighting had led to investigations concentrating more in this area than on the individual characteristics of arsonists.
He added that patterns varied from place to place. In the Illawarra, for example, five years of data has shown that most bushfires are lit on a Saturday.
“We also know that this time of year is the peak time for fire lighting in the Illawarra. We don’t why,” he said.
Whatever the underlying cause, the often devastating work of firebugs, together with an increase in bushfire attacks, has this week prompted NSW Police to act.
The State Crime Command Property Crime Squad Arson Team announced its brief had been extended to include acts of bushfire arson, for which the maximum penalty is 14 years’ jail.
Nevertheless, NSW Rural Fire Service Superintendent Richard Cotterill said the incidence of bushfire arson in the Illawarra was not prevalent.
“We do have, on occasion, some fires deliberately lit,” he said.
But most outbreaks were linked to natural causes such as lightning, or instances such as powerlines blowing together, trail bike riders blazing a path through dry grass and abandoned cars set alight.