The Six Motives for Firesetting

At any point during your career as a fire investigator you will be assigned to investigate an incendiary fire. When the investigator arrives on the scene, information about the incident will be coming from a variety of sources, including police...


At any point during your career as a fire investigator you will be assigned to investigate an incendiary fire. When the investigator arrives on the scene, information about the incident will be coming from a variety of sources, including police, firefighters, witnesses and the occupants or owner. It is critical to sort all of the information and analyze it properly. During the investigation we must use critical thinking and ask many questions such as, why was this fire was deliberately set? Why was the home, business or vehicle the target of an arsonist? What was the motivation of the arsonist?

Fire investigation is an information and fact gathering process. As fire investigators we need to conduct the origin and cause investigation first. Once the fire has been classified as incendiary we then can use the motive indicators to develop or identify any potential suspects. The motive is defined as the impulse or inner drive that causes a person to act in a certain behavior. Remember that the identification of the motive is not a requirement of the prosecution of arson, but it often helps the case.

The identification of the motive can identify if the fire was a single event of fire setting or a multiple event of fire setting behavior. Repetitive fire setting is broken down into three classifications. The classifications are: serial arson, spree arson and mass arson. Serial arson is as many as three fires set at different locations and each fire has a cooling off period between the sets. Spree arson is as many as three fires at different locations with no cooling off period between sets. Mass arson is multiple fires set at the same time at the same location.

There are six motive classifications that are associated with firesetters:

  1. Vandalism
  2. Excitement
  3. Revenge
  4. Crime concealment
  5. Profit
  6. Extremism

Vandalism - the mischievous or malicious act of firesetting that causes damage to property.

These types of fires are usually set to abandoned/vacant buildings, vehicles, brush and educational facilities and will be set to cover up other crimes such as burglary or theft. These types of fires are usually the result of peer pressure or some type of gang initiation. Vandalism fires are mostly caused by the juvenile offender. For instance, some fires that I have investigated were located in schools and the areas surrounded by the school, mostly trash cans and brush fires. These juveniles were placed in a juvenile firesetter program and achieved great results.

Excitement - this type of fire is set by the thrill-seeking arsonist for excitement, recognition and attention. There are some rare occasions that the fire is set for sexual gratification.

These types of fires can range from brush fires to occupied structures. The arsonist will usually set these fires in a geographic location that is familiar to them and may remain at the scene. It is not uncommon that the firesetter may photograph or video the fire. The investigator will gain valuable information that may be used at a later date by photographing the crowd and spectators at the scene.

Included in this classification are security guards, night watchmen and members of the fire service. Security guards may be the first to discover the fire and are looking for praise and recognition. The firefighter arsonist can be a volunteer or career member of the fire service. They may set fires to show the need for more firefighters, to be the hero, or are seeking praise and recognition. Firefighter arsonists are a small percentage of firefighters and should be prosecuted with no exceptions.

Revenge - this type of fire is retaliation for a real or perceived injustice. This type of fire can result in deadly consequences.

Targets of the retaliation can be a person, institutional facility, societal or a group. Revenge fires directed at people are often the result of a fight or disagreement. The revenge firesetter will set a fire to the victims home, vehicle or possessions. The offender may be identified by the location of the area of origin and the materials involved in the fire. The fires that are located in the bedroom are usually in the closet or the area of the bed.

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