Psychology of Fire Setting and Costs of Arson

Most children are fascinated with campfires, fireplaces, bonfires, etc. That’s natural. But when fascination turns into an obsession, fire setting can become a serious problem. Juveniles who set fires obsessively become a huge problem to society, and property losses from intentionally set fires total almost $1 billion per year.

Arson is a felony offense and “arson is the felony with the highest rate of juvenile involvement.” ( Most fire setters – four out of five – are boys, and they fall into four categories.

1. The “curious firesetter” is often a boy between three and seven years old who will use a lighter or matches to make a hidden fire and then try to extinguish it.

2. A five- to ten-year-old who sets fires after a stressful incident may be seeking attention. He is a “crisis firesetter” who is shy, anxious or worried.

3. The “delinquent firesetter,” who is between 10 and 17 years old, often opposes authority and is influenced by peers. The group sets the fires and often uses accelerants.

4. The “pathological firesetter,” which includes only about 2% to 3% of cases, is often an 8- to 12-year-old boy who has had a history of abuse; he usually has serious family or peer issues, and he may have medical or neurological problems. This troubled boy will often plan and set fires while avoiding detection.

An adolescent psychiatrist at the Lehigh Valley Health Network, Dr. Dhanalakshmi Ramasamy says that such children usually have an underlying emotional, medical, or neurological problem. “If a child sets fires repeatedly, it may be a sign of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or it can result from a traumatic incident like divorce, abuse, or school or relationship distress.”

The Lehigh Valley Health Network in E. PA offers counseling and treatment. Also, a local fireman offers a course for juvenile firesetters to understand “the dangers and consequences of their actions.” People can call 610-402-CARE or visit online for more help.

Much has been learned from past fires and investigative outcomes. In late October of 2007, southern California had 16 fires going at once; two were set by arsonists. The fires “displaced more than a half-million people, destroyed nearly 1900 homes and killed at least seven” people. Eighty people were injured; firefighters were overwhelmed; and the fire scorched over 800 square miles. (Newsweek)

The arsonist fires were set about one-half mile apart; blazed through 27,600 acres and destroyed 14 homes. California Governor Schwarzenegger offered a $50,000 reward, later upped to $285,000, to anyone who could turn in the perpetrator. Five people were arrested for setting fires, but none of those could be traced to the start of the Santiago blaze.

A fire in Esperanza killed five firefighters in 2006. Police arrested Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, and charged him with murder. He is actually under investigation for 23 separate fires.

Oyler’s lawyer at the time, Mark McDonald, said his client wasn’t one of those “bizarre” arsonists who set fire for sexual gratification. “He’s really just a dopey mechanic. He probably set fires for reasons having to do with losing one of his kids in a parental-rights battle to the mother’s relatives. Perhaps he was trying to get back at the person who took his kids away, by making it look like they set the fire.”

On March 19, 2009, a Riverside jury returned a verdict of “death” for Oyler for killing the five firefighters in the Esperanza fire. (L.A. Times)

Some fires are started by firemen who are simply attention seekers. Actually, since that type of firesetter is not so uncommon, a commission was formed in the 1990s to study such people. The commission worked with the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Division in Quantico, VA to create a screening test for fire departments to avoid hiring potential firebugs. The numbers lessened from about 40 per year to three.

One fire captain and arson investigator, John Leonard Orr of the Glendale CA Fire Department, was so good at reaching fires quickly and setting up teams to put them out, that people became suspicious. It seems very likely that Orr set over 2,000 fires between 1984 and 1991.

Orr was convicted of killing four people in a fire in Pasadena in 1992. He wrote a book about a man who loved to set fires for sexual gratification, and his book, “Points of Origin,” was used against him at trial. On 6-25-08, he was sentenced to life plus 20 years and is serving time at CA State Prison.

A former LAPD detective, Joseph Wambaugh, keeps in touch with Orr in prison. He says the man is affable and intelligent; he is not psychotic. He wrote a book about Orr titled, “Fire Lover: A True Story,” and HBO made a movie based on the book.

A man who was scorned by a lover set fire to the nightclub where she worked in 1990. He poured gasoline on the only stairway exit and set it afire. Julio Gonzalez was convicted of 174 counts of murder and was sentenced to prison for 25 years to life.

Of course, some arsonists set fires for insurance money. One man, Marc Thompson, set fire to his home valued at $730,000 in Chicago in 2002. The twist: He made it appear as if his 90-year-old mother was trying to commit suicide. He was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to 190 years in federal prison. 

Politically-motivated fires – like targeted abortion clinics – are a big cause of arson. In 30 years, since 1977, according to the National Abortion Federation, 174 arson attacks were reported in the U.S. and Canada.

Other political firebugs are environmental terrorists. The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) caused $12 million in damages to a ski resort in Vail, CO in 1998, and proudly took credit for it. Then they set fire to a five-story condo in CA in 2003, causing $50 million worth of damage.

“Arson is the leading cause of fires in the United states and the second leading cause of fire deaths (after fires set by smokers).” In the 10-year period between 1997 and 2007, the national numbers dropped from 78,500 to 31,000 arson structure fires, but the number of jailed arsonists increased in CA from 436 in 1998 to 473 in 2007.  (Newsweek)

Whether starting fires for money, peer-pressured vandalism, revenge, attention-getting, political reasons or as “pyromaniacs who start them for sexual release,” the sooner a firebug is detected, the better.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration under FEMA, about 210,000 fires are intentionally set each year, which cause about 375 deaths, 1300 injuries, and about $1 billion a year in property loss and damages.

If someone or something – police, firefighters, counselors, therapists, parents, and the court system – can intervene when the firesetters are young, many lives could be saved, including those of the “problem child,” the delinquents, the mentally disturbed, and the attention seekers – because they cannot help themselves.


“Playing with Fire,” the Lehigh Valley Health Network Newsletter, “Healthy You,” November/December 2008. Online version at  Retrieved 2-20-10.

Newsweek, “The Scorched-Earth Obsession.” Evan Thomas, Karen Breslau, and Andrew Murr, November 5, 2007.

“Riverside County jury orders death for arsonist.” Raymond Lee Oyler.  Retrieved 2-21-10. Http://

Http://   Retrieved 2-21-10.  Information about John Leonard Orr.

FEMA “Intentionally Set Fires.” Retrieved 2-21-10.