Australian bushfires: inside the mind of an arsonist

Australian bushfires: inside the mind of an arsonist

15 February 2009

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Australia — Wade Kirkwood had been fascinated with setting fires since his childhood. But he says it was a troubled marriage and problems at work that turned him into one of the most feared serial arsonists in recent history.

“I felt like I needed to do something as destructive as I could,” he explained in a recent interview. “I cared if I hurt people but I didn’t care what I was doing. I wanted everybody to feel my pain.

“Deep down, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. But I took that chance when I set the fires, knowing that somebody could get hurt or killed.”

Kirkwood, who was a 36-year-old construction engineer at the time, admitted that he enjoyed the thrill of seeing firefighters struggling to tackle the spate of blazes that terrorised rural Kittitas County, Washington, in the scorching summer of 2004.

For forensic psychologists, criminologists and arson investigators, he ticked virtually every box for the profile of an arsonist. He was a white man under 40, a low achiever, with problems at home and a fascination with fire. He was also angry with society, intent on inflicting pain on his local community and revelling in the power he felt he gained from his actions.

The sheriff’s department in Kittitas had initially suspected another, smaller category of wildfire arsonists – police and fire officials who enjoy the thrill of tackling and investigating the blazes they set. But Kirkwood emerged as the prime suspect after he was spotted demonstrating another classic characteristic – watching one of his fires from his car.

As Australian investigators pursue those who helped fuel the most lethal round of wildfires in the country’s history, Kirkwood’s behaviour offers an alarming glimpse into the mindset of an arsonist. It will come as no surprise to the experts that the unidentified suspect charged on Friday in connection with a fire that killed 21 people in Victoria is male, local, allegedly possessed child pornography and is thought to have acted opportunistically after freak weather.

According to arson profiling, the typical Australian “firebug” is a man, aged in his thirties, from a poor background and with a history of crime. Dr Damon Muller, bushfire crime analyst from the Australian Institute of Criminology, has spent years investigating the type of people who set fires. An arsonist is likely to be disengaged from society, and many have committed other crimes, such as violence, vandalism and theft, he says.

Bushfire arsonists, unlike people who burn down buildings, tend to be motivated by psychological factors, explains Dr Muller. “With structural arson there’s usually a financial gain or revenge or they are covering up another crime. But with bushfires there’s nothing to be gained financially. We see it as a need for recognition or a need to control their environment. If you light a fire it’s a small act, but you can mobilise huge numbers of fire crews and the media.”

Some arsonists light fires so they can play the role of “hero”, alerting the authorities to the danger and then glorying in gratitude. Others do it to relieve boredom and create excitement, he says.

Up to half of the bushfires in Australia each year are started deliberately, with an annual cost to the community of about A$1.6 billion (£732 million), Australia’s Institute of Criminology has found.

Australian penalties sound tough: arsonists face up to 25 years in prison under laws that can treat deadly arson in the same category as murder. But securing convictions is a major challenge.

In Victoria, police laid nearly 3,000 arson charges in 2006-07 but just 39 people were found guilty, with the most common sentence of just a year in jail.

Australia has also had its tangle with the peculiar breed of firefighter-arsonists, most notably with Brendan Keith Hokin, who devoted six years of his life to tackling blazes with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. Hailed as a hero for fighting hundreds of fires near the Hunter Valley town of Cessnock, he was convicted and jailed for lighting a fierce blaze on one of the hottest days of 2002.

A psychologist’s report described his actions as a “cry for help”, saying he was suffering from severe depression when he started the fire because he was unemployed, living in a caravan park and feared that his relationship with his partner would break down.

Southern California, with its dry summer terrain and notorious winds, enjoys the unenviable status of the world’s most active wildfire zone – and hence an international focus for the study of arsonists. Each year, arsonists set copycat blazes as other fires rip across the countryside. Nikos Guskos, a police detective and professor of criminal justice at California State University, has identified several key traits during his interviews with suspects.

“A lot of them demonstrate a real anger, often a hatred, for society,” he says. “They often refer to their treatment when they are growing up – they may have been bullied at school or abused at home and felt nobody came to their help. They frequently lack social skills and just don’t interact with people well. They usually strike in the area where they reside – this is a vendetta for them and they are lashing out against their surroundings.”

Some of the Australian blazes “look like they will fit the profile of an arsonist to a tee”, he says. “Some fires started accidentally and then the arsonists moved in, saw an opportunity to inflict additional damage and hopefully get away with it. I doubt murder was the intent, whatever the terrible result.”

Kurt Kamm is a Malibu-based writer who has lived through several wildfires and used those experiences as the material for his novels – his next is set in the mind of an arsonist. “They tend to have a below average IQ and a below average job, and come from disrupted backgrounds,” he says. “They are often under-achievers and angry with society for their own failings.

“Setting a fire not only gives them a feeling of revenge. It also gives them a sense of control and power – they are responsible for these huge blazes and enjoy seeing the time and resources that their communities have to devote to deal with them. It gives them a warped sense of accomplishment and pride.

“These are often spur-of-the-moment acts, committed without much thought for the consequences. Setting the fire is the purpose, the goal, not destroying hundreds of homes or claiming lives.”

Prof Guskos sees a similar trait in the Australian fires. “The terrain is very similar to southern California and prone to these rapid-moving wildfires. Those sorts of fires cause the maximum destruction and require the greater resources to fight. It will give the arsonist a huge sense of power.”

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