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...

The items used to set the fire are most likely clothing and ordinary combustibles. If a fire on the bed is discovered make sure you identify the type of clothes and sizes. This will give you a good indicator of the firesetter's gender. There may be history of an affair or domestic violence. Due to the extreme emotional state of the arsonist the attack is usually unsophisticated and unorganized.

The institutional firesetter will target corporations, medical, religious and education facilities. A former employee, disgruntled employee or patient may be the arsonist. The societal firesetter feels that they have to strike out at society. This type of firesetter feels loneliness and persecution and is not satisfied with just one fire.

Crime Concealment - is an attempt to conceal another type of crime such as murder, burglary, or an attempt to destroy documents or records by fire. The arsonist believes that all of the physical evidence or the identity of the victim will be destroyed in the fire. Fires will indeed destroy some evidence of the crime; however guns, knives and bullets will survive a fire to some degree.

With vehicle fires victims have been located in the passenger and cargo compartment, so make sure you investigate these areas. It is important for the investigator to remember that any crime that is committed can be covered up with an intenionaly set fire.

Profit - the profit motivated fire is set for a monetary gain or material gain.

The arsonist may set fire to escape financial obligations, increase property values, commit insurance fraud, or to intimidate or eliminate business competition. Some jurisdictions fail to investigate vehicle fires; this is a big mistake. A person who can't afford the lease or payments on their vehicle may report it stolen and set it on fire. This is done to get out of the financial obligations or collect the insurance payment.

Fraud is often identified as a motive for arson. When hard economic times are felt by owners of private property and businesses, the owners may feel like the only way to get out from under the finance problems are to burn the property or business. Fraud is broken down into two categories, residential and commercial.

Residential fraud is the type of fire set by the homeowner or tenant with the expectation of defrauding the insurance carrier. There are many reasons that a homeowner or land lord may burn the property. There may be an inability to rent the property or increasing taxes and physical deteriorations. Commercial fraud may be used by the owner to destroy records, old equipment, and for the purpose to collect insurance payouts. When conducting the origin and cause investigations make it a point to check the stock and office area for items that have been removed prior to the fire. These fires may be used by members of organized crime to create intimidation and committ extortion.

Extremism - extremist firesetting is used to further political, social, or religious causes. These firesetters may work as individuals or as groups. The extremist arsonist takes time selecting the target and is very organized. The use of elaborate incendiary or ignition devices are not uncommon. Extremism is broken down into two categories: terrorism and riot or civil disturbance.

Terrorism is used to create fear, confusion and anarchy. Targets selected by the terrorists are selected with a degree of economic or political significance. Targets can range from government offices, military bases, universities, fire and police headquarters, and power plants or port terminals. Riot or civil disturbance fires are set during riots and are often accompanied by looting and vandalism. These types of incidents usually occur after a high profile incident, court proceeding, or sports event.


As fire investigators, when we are conducting the origin and cause investigation we are trying to seek the truth. Once the investigator identifies the motive we can evaluate suspects for the arson fire. Remember the six motive classifications of the firesetter. I'm sure at some point in your career you will be required to speak about them in court. Remember that the identification of the motive is not a requirement in the prosecution of arson, but it often helps the case. Remember to network with other investigators, especially if they border your city. Your firesetter may be the same person.