Who's the Fire Starter?

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Sometimes, this is how the fire starts.

Sometimes, this is how the fire starts. Source: 96dotsperinch hide caption

itoggle caption Source: 96dotsperinch

Whenever I hear news of a wildfire breaking out, my first assumption is that it was some sort of accident, an unfortunate and unpredictable combination of an innocent spark flying off of a piece of machinery and a particularly dry season. As authorities in California consider to search for a white Ford truck in connection with one of the largest fires, though, it seems I should know better. Most fires may not be set deliberately, but there are enough that are to inject a degree of skepticism into my assumption. So what motivates an arsonist? Control freak that I am, the thought of setting things in motion that I'll never be able to manage makes fire-starting sound darn scary to me... but that's clearly not true for everyone.

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I'm from Flagstaff, AZ who has seen it's fair share of fires. Many of the fires that were started here in AZ in the last several years were by firefighters who needed money. They were paid a lot more on "active" duty.

Sent by Michelle | 2:24 PM | 10-30-2007

Any concern that terrorists caused these fires?

Sent by John | 2:29 PM | 10-30-2007

http://www.truthinjustice.org/arson-errors.htm

In the past 20 years or so, it's been discovered that a lot of what the justice system thought it knew about building arson turned out to be false. When buildings which were known to have burnt naturally were studied, it was found, for example, that a burning floor could happen quite easily--natural fires are hotter than the investigators believed.

The radio show mentioned a fireman who was convicted of setting many fires, but never admitted to it. At this point, I'm wondering if the evidence against him was based on unsound theories.

Sent by Nancy Lebovitz | 2:31 PM | 10-30-2007

While I was a reporter, we were told to be observant of those watching large fires we covered. We were looking for people behaving "strangely." Without being overly graphic, I haven't heard anything about the psycho-sexual connection with arson.

Sent by Peter Deane | 2:36 PM | 10-30-2007

I believe that the fascination with fire is a characteristic of both genders of humans, and one that has been with us since humans learned to use fire. Many of the world's ecosystems are adapted to natural fire, that is, fire started by lightning or other natural means. Humans picked up on this and most early hunter-gatherer groups used fire for various purposes: to clear out areas for hunting, to herd prey animals in a certain direction, or to prepare for agriculture. It is natural for humans to want to use fire. It becomes a problem in our crowded world when fires begin to impinge on roads, homes, and communities.

I especially wanted to put in a word for young people who are fascinated by fire to study fire ecology and becomes involved in fire fighting and prescribed burning. I am a certified prescribed burn manager in the state of Florida, where we intentionally burn thousands of acres every year. If you want a sanctioned way to set controlled fires, getting into prescribed burning is an excellent outlet for an interest in fire!

Susan in Hawthorne, Florida

Sent by Susan Marynowski | 2:42 PM | 10-30-2007

I'm a 60+ year old woman who loved to play with matches as a child, and so did my daughter. I once started a fire in a wastebasket in my room ("I wonder if Kleenex would burn???") that spread to the curtains and almost burned the house down. My mother's remedy for this childhood fire interest (which she considered perfectly normal behavior) was to give me a large box of wooden kitchen matches and make me light each individually one on the front concrete porch, let each one burn down, and not stop until I'd finished the entire box. This completely extinguished my interest in fire. Worked for my daughter, too, and she's filed that knowledge away in case she needs it for her children.

Sent by Nancy | 2:43 PM | 10-30-2007

I think there is a link between these fires and a grandiose desire to have control or power over the environment. Like many other violent crimes, it seems that this type of arson is rooted in the need for power, control and domination. It is also interesting to note that men are far more often the perpetrators in all of these crimes.

Sent by Merri | 2:49 PM | 10-30-2007

When I lived in New Mexico twenty years ago we all knew that the people who lived in the poor rural communities would set wildfires so they would have enough money to make it through the winter.

Sent by Gordon Gilkey | 4:23 PM | 10-30-2007

I want to correct sonething that was said during this radio cast.

Someone reported that the Environmental Liberation Front was actively recruiting young people to start fires. This perpetuates the myth that the ELF is an organization in the traditional sense. There is no recruiting. Activists take direct action on behalf of protecting our environment and do so in the the name of the ELF. There's no membership or recruitment whatsoever.

Sent by supporter | 11:16 AM | 11-4-2007