'It is a gateway crime': Inside the mind of arsonists – and why they start fires

Arsonists who start blazes while bushfires ravage Australia’s countryside may just be starting their criminal career.

To the average person, the act is considered incomprehensible, particularly when a large part of the country’s east coast has been placed on strict fire bans amid disastrous conditions.

But deliberate fires – often committed by anti-social, young, white males seeking control – may be a sign of more serious things to come, experts have warned.

“It can act as a gateway crime, especially if you’re talking about antisocial behaviour,” Matthew Willis, Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) research manager, told Yahoo News Australia.

“Someone who is going to get into that type of behaviour – graffiti, breaking into homes, starting fires – that kind of behaviour can lead to other more serious forms of criminal behaviour.”

Pictured is a bright red sky during bushfires over the weekend. Source: Reddit
To the average person, the act is considered incomprehensible, particularly when a large part of the country’s east coast has been placed on strict fire bans amid disastrous conditions. Source: Reddit

In NSW alone this week, 10 people were caught lighting fires during the fire ban, with another five people being charged with deliberately lighting blazes in Queensland.

As police attempted to track down offenders, firefighters battled more than 100 bushfires ravaging hundreds of thousands of hectares across both states.

Four people have been found dead. The RFS late on Saturday announced 303 homes had been confirmed razed since November 8 in NSW.

A further 102 homes had been damaged, which was 15 more than the last update on Friday.

In Queensland, 79 fires were burning on Sunday, but those of most concern are in the Scenic Rim on the NSW border, at Ravensbourne north of Toowoomba, at Thornside east of Gympie and at Sharon near Bundaberg.

Pictured is a charred swing among burnt trees. Source: AAP
In NSW alone this week, 10 people were caught lighting fires during the fire ban, with another five people being charged with deliberately lighting blazes in Queensland.  Source: AAP

Who commits arson?

Offenders range from bored juveniles to thrill-seeking young adults and even firefighters with a hero complex or sexual fetish, according to the AIC.

According to research, a ‘typical’ arsonist is a white male, aged 17 to 25, who suffered a dysfunctional childhood, has a fascination with fire and may be facing unusual stress like financial or addiction problems.

Arsonists are also thought to have a lack of social skills and a low-paying job but average to above-average intelligence.

However, for every ‘typical’ arsonist, you can find 50 who aren’t, Mr Willis said.

Communities with a high propensity for arson often have a high population of children under 15 and lower education levels, according to the AIC.

“Unfortunately, communities with this demographic profile are common on the outskirts of cities where there are opportunities for bushfire arson near at hand and consequently, the bulk of bushfire arson ignitions occur in this context. Most of these fires burn five hectares or less.”

A firefighter is seen trying to extinguish a blaze. Source: AAP 
Over the weekend firefighters battled more than 100 bushfires ravaging hundreds of thousands of hectares across both states. Source: AAP 

In some rare cases, firefighters themselves have been the source of intentional blazes.

They are usually in their first three years of service and use “available materials, such as paper or clothes, together with petrol and matches or cigarette lighters”, according to the AIC.

“Generally firefighter arsonists work alone, but instances of them working together as a group have been found.”

In a team setting, they may come off as cocky or overbearing.

NSW police investigated some 1500 suspicious fires from 2001 to 2004, eventually charging 50 people – 11 of which were volunteer firefighters.

Former Victorian Country Fire Authority volunteer Brendan Sokaluk was jailed in 2012 for deliberately lighting a fire on Black Saturday that killed 10 people and destroyed 10 homes in February 2009.

More than 170 people died on Black Saturday – the worst bushfire in Australia’s history.

Every year, 'disaster-level' bushfires cost the country an average of $77 million, according to the AIC.

Motives behind arson

Arsonists are believed to be psychologically driven.

“Among serial bushfire arsonists there may be a high prevalence of histrionic personality disorder, characterised by dysfunctional attention-seeking and emotionality,” according to the AIC.

Motives for arson can differ between teen and adult offenders – but the one thing they do have in common is the desire for recognition, Mr Willis said.

While teen offenders are typically trying to fulfil their boredom, adults may be trying to boost their low self-esteem and feeling of control.

A bushfire in Hillville moves in on a house near the Pacific Highway, north of Nabiac in the Mid North Coast.
Four people have been found dead and more than 300 homes have been destroyed. Almost 90 homes have been damaged, while some 480 outbuildings and 18 facilities have also been razed. Source: AAP

“They are often people who don’t have a lot going on in their lives in terms of personal relationships or employment. By lighting a fire they’re able to get that attention and exercise control in a way that they necessarily don’t always have in their lives,” he said.

Firesetters may seek stimulation from the sights and sounds of flames, sirens, fire engines, uniforms and aircraft, according to research.

Those who strike during bushfire season know they will receive an intense and quick response from emergency services – giving them the attention they crave, Mr Willis said.

Firefighter arsonists craving stimulation or activity may start a fire before reporting for duty, he continued.

“You’ve got someone who has joined the service but they don’t have much else going on and they’re looking for a chance to be a bit of a hero and do something for the community,” Mr Willis said.

“People have gone out and lit fires while they’re on shift and may even report the fire themselves,” he said.

Mr Willis said classic pyromaniacs, those who have an unhealthy obsession with fire, do exist but are “very, very rare”.

The research manager said arsonists more often than not believe they will be able to control the blaze and do not take environmental factors into consideration.

“They’re fulfilling an immediate need and overestimate their ability to have control. They’re not thinking through the full consequences of their behaviour,” he said.

Crime and punishment

This week, NSW police have arrested 10 people caught lighting fires during the total fire ban – and are searching for another five they believe are responsible for different blazes across the state.

A Sydney man was charged on Friday with setting off fireworks in Sydney Park, sparking a bushfire.

The 34-year-old was allegedly found with a variety of sparklers and multiple cigarette lighters.

Another man, 37, allegedly lit a fire in Annandale on Wednesday afternoon before fleeing.

Later that night, a 26-year-old man allegedly lit a fire in his backyard to burn rubbish – less than 40 metres away from a shed containing petrol, oil and fertilisers.

Pictured are the bushfires from a satellite. Source: NASA
While teen offenders are typically trying to fulfil their boredom, adults may be trying to boost their low self-esteem and feeling of control. Source: NASA

Two youths were arrested in Kingscliff this week after gathering dry leaves and setting them alight. They have been dealt with under the Young Offenders Act.

Rescuers also arrested a man allegedly caught setting a bush alight near Wollongong.

In Queensland, five people have been charged with lighting fires during the fire ban. One juvenile has also been dealt with under the Young Offenders Act, police said.

It is believed a bushfire in Central Queensland that destroyed 36 structures and 14 homes on Saturday near Yeppoon was deliberately lit by a teen boy.

The maximum penalties for bushfire arson range from 14 to 25 years behind bars, but they are seldom revoked because it is hard to track down the identity of the offender, Mr Willis said.

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