Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Arson from The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

The intentional burning of an object. Criminal arson is understood as either setting fire to someone else's property or setting fire to one's own property with fraudulent intent. Any fire that has been deliberately set with malicious intent is arson. A person who purposely starts such fires is an arsonist. In 1979 arson was added to the list of Index I crimes and became one of the eight serious offenses tracked yearly in the FBI's Uniform Crime Report (UCR).

See also

Uniform Crime Report (UCR)


Summary Article: Arson from The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Arson, the crime of intentionally setting a fire that causes significant damage, injury, or death, is difficult to investigate and prosecute due to the complex and highly technical nature of proving the fire was intentionally set. Skilled investigators use a wide variety of tools to investigate arsons and a team of support personnel, including forensic accountants, insurance personnel, chemists, even psychologists, to assist in solving this crime.

  • criminal investigation
  • vandalism
  • organized crime
  • elements of a crime

Arson is the intentional setting of a fire that causes significant damage, death, or serious bodily injury. Defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (2010) for the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), arson is “Any willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, personal property of another, etc.” Not only is arson a significant criminal justice issue, but fundamentally a public health and safety issue. It is also a major economic issue, as a growing motive for arson is insurance fraud, especially given the recession suffered from 2008 to 2011.

In order to criminally charge an individual with arson, elements of the crime must be proven. While each state has its own definition of arson, in the Federal Criminal Code arson is defined in Title 18 United States Code (USC) section 844. Subsection (i) prohibits the use of fire or explosives to damage or destroy, or attempt to, a building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce (United States Attorneys' Manual 1997). This invokes the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, which enables federal prosecution for crimes generally handled at the state or local level. Subsection (f) makes it a crime to burn or attempt to burn any federally owned, leased, or otherwise controlled property. Generally, arson has three elements that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. First, there must be damage caused by fire (not just scorching or soot). Second, the burning must be incendiary in origin, meaning it was deliberately set; according to DeHaan (2002), “proof must be accomplished by showing specifically how all possible natural or accidental causes have been considered and ruled out.” Finally, it must be shown that the fire was started with the intent to cause damage. Intent can be inferred through the actions (or inactions) of the suspect.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (2010), intentional fires are the third leading cause of deaths by fire, after cooking fires and heating equipment fires. The UCR show that in 2010, the last full year available, arson was the reported crime in 56,825 incidents (FBI 2010). Fixed structure fires ruled as arson made up the bulk of these crimes, occurring in 45.5% of the offenses, while attacks on mobile property made up 26%. Other types of property accounted for the remainder of the arsons. While most arsons averaged property loss of $17,612, industrial or manufacturing structures sustained an average of over $133,000 in damage. A study done by the Insurance Information Institute shows that arsonists destroyed nearly $900 million in insured property and killed 295 persons nationwide in 2007 (US Fire Administration 2009).

As a criminal act, arson presents serious issues because of the threat to lives, public safety, and economic integrity of a community. However, due to its highly destructive nature, and technical aspects of the investigation, arson is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute successfully (DeHaan 2002). Investigators, fire suppression officials, insurance company personnel, police, and prosecutors must form a team to adequately investigate these crimes.

The process of determining whether a fire is an arson (that is, intentionally set) is a complicated endeavor and often requires special expertise in the origin and cause of fire science. Firefighters alerted to a fire respond with fire suppression equipment and control the blaze by extinguishing the fire. Once it is safe to enter, the firefighters visually inspect the scene to ensure that all persons who may have been inside are accounted for. If a fatality occurs, homicide investigators and the medical examiner are summoned to determine the cause and manner of death. Thus, a fire may have two parallel investigations being conducted by two different agencies at one time. In many jurisdictions, fire investigators (usually assigned to the local or state fire marshal's office) have good working relationships with their police counterparts and work the case together. However, problems of leadership, training, skill level, and ego can be detrimental to the effective closure of the case.

Unlike most violent crimes, such as rape, robbery, and murder, arson is usually not readily apparent as a crime. It may be suspicious and have indicators that prompt investigators to look further, but at its outset arson is difficult to detect. It is also significantly hampered by the destructive nature of the fire itself, which can damage and destroy any evidence the perpetrator may have left behind. This is a huge challenge for the investigative team (National Institute of Justice 2000). Like fraud, embezzlement, and other covert financial crimes, arson investigations take a large effort to establish the cause, investigate the facts, and prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Once the site is safe to enter, fire investigators enter the scene and conduct an origin and cause investigation. The origin part determines where the fire began; this is most commonly done by examining the physical evidence left by the heat and chemicals produced by the fire (DeHaan 2002). A source of ignition may include candles, electrical appliances, cigarettes, matches, and other heat sources. The source of the fire is identified through careful observation and documentation, including sketches, photographs, and videos of the fire scene. By applying the principles of heat, combustion, and other fire science laws, technically proficient investigators can determine the exact (or near exact) location where the fire started (O'Connor 1981). In arsons, this is typically where the perpetrator had access, such as an office, closet, or chemical storage area, or where the perpetrator wished the most damage to be done, such as the accounting office in cases where it contained evidence of financial misconduct.

Evidence must be collected at the fire scene, and should be handled as if the cause is arson (National Institute of Justice 2000). A chain of custody is established to prove the evidence hasn't been falsified, fabricated, or intentionally altered or degraded. This can be difficult since “the destructive power of the fire itself compromises evidence from the outset” (National Institute of Justice 2000). “To improve the likelihood of a successful resolution, an investigator must approach the fire investigation systematically” (Redsicker and O'Connor 1997). This evidence includes interviews with the responding fire personnel, bystanders, witnesses, and occupants who can describe the scene and their observations, which may provide critical details a skilled fire investigator can use (National Institute of Justice 2000). Other evidence includes physical specimens such as wood, carpet samples, photographs, glass fragments, and more (DeHaan 2002).

Before proceeding with a criminal arson investigation, the fire marshal must rule out accidental, electrical, or other non-intentional reasons the fire began. This is the cause phase. Appliances, heated cooking oil, cigarettes carelessly discarded, and other are all typical causes of fires that are unintentional or accidental (National Fire Protection Association 2005). Other issues that must be ruled out include lightning strikes, sun, hay storage, and sparks from electrical equipment (American Insurance Association 1981).

Accelerants are liquids used to quickly spread or inflame the fire area. Using trained arson canines, investigators can identify these while on scene. The use of flammable or combustible liquid accelerants (not necessarily their concentration) is extremely important in the criminal investigation and prosecution of arson cases, since their introduction into the environment could be seen as willful conduct. Laboratory scientists, including forensic chemists, can also assist in detecting and evaluating the use of accelerants.

Financial investigators or forensic auditors are called in to assist in cases where fraud, theft, embezzlement, or other financial motive is suspected (Icove, Wherry, and Schroeder 1998). Certified Fraud Examiners, for instance, are trained in the forensic reconstruction of financial documents and information that may have been destroyed, intentionally in some cases (Dervaes 2009). In one case, a Maryland man pleaded guilty to arson and embezzlement after a multi-agency investigation proved that he stole over $1 million from the law firm where he managed escrow accounts, then set a fire that caused $800,000 in damage to the firm and adjacent businesses. The arson was concentrated on the fourth floor of the building which housed the law firm, and a room in the basement that the law firm used to store documents (FBI 2009).

Forensic auditors from law enforcement agencies, insurance companies, and prosecutors' offices utilize sophisticated financial investigative techniques, including interviewing, document analysis, computer forensic analysis, and public records searches to identify motives or reasons for the arson. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Chief of Financial Investigation Services Division, Francis Frande, noted the most important evidence can come from financial records; a fire investigator's first priority after safety is to try and preserve computers and file cabinets which contain critical business and financial documents (InterFire 2012). According to Icove and colleagues (1998) financial motives can include collection of insurance payouts, liquidating property holdings when they cannot be sold otherwise, dissolving an unprofitable business, concealing a loss of revenue or a less than expected decline in profits, or reducing competition. They note that “economic[ally motivated] arson … remains one of the nation's costliest fraud schemes.” Although frequently called “arson-for-profit,” it is important to note that the cost of insurance fraud and arson is paid by the entire nation through higher insurance premiums and higher taxpayer costs for police, fire services, and public safety.

The intentional act of setting fire to a building, vehicle, person, or other structure can have several motivations, in addition to the financial motives outlined above:

  1. Cover up another crime: these crimes range from homicide to embezzlement, and arson is used to ensure that the previous criminal activity is not identified or enough evidence is destroyed so that it cannot be prosecuted.

  2. Gratification: some arsonists seek the excitement and attention of fire, and the response to it by fire officials. Some are even sexually aroused by the event. Excited and thrill-seeking arsonists will sometimes stay in the area to watch, possibly even photographing the action.

  3. Vandalism: any intentional fire set that damages property, even if it is minor damage, is vandalism (DeHaan 2002). Usually connected with juvenile gangs or delinquent activity, it can be the first step to larger, more serious crimes.

  4. Extremism: fires planned and executed for social protest reasons or by terrorist groups fall into the extremist motive. Arsons have been a common tool of extreme animal rights activists, such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). ALF members routinely targeted government facilities, ranches, meat processing facilities, and even universities with arson; in 2007, 10 members of a cell of ALF activists were sentenced for their roles in a number of arsons across the western United States (Anti-Defamation League 2007).

The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) provides behavioral profiling services to law enforcement agencies in response to many times of crimes, including arsons. Working closely with ATF, psychologists, intelligence analysts, criminal investigators, and other professionals they have developed important skills in solving particularly heinous arsons. They use tools including crime analysis, linkage analysis, incident analysis, and geographic profiling. Their services include developing profiles of offenders, providing input into investigative strategies and plans, offering interview and interrogation themes and suggestions, and drafting search warrant affidavits. They also conduct studies and research into the causes of crime. In 1992, NCAVC produced the first edition of the Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes, which has become a definitive reference tool and has a number of sections that deal specifically with arson. Through their system of classification, based on factual information and observations about the arson, NCAVC analysts can work through an offender profile, which can significantly assist local law enforcement in identifying and apprehending a suspect. As subject matter experts, they also testify as expert witnesses in hearings and trials. “Determination of an apparent motive is the primary step in an analysis of the [arson]” (DeHaan 2002). DeHaan notes that predictions of date, time, conditions, and other characteristics of the arsonist can be tested, and a pattern established. Patterns by criminals lead to mistakes, and mistakes lead to arrests.

Organized crime groups have historically used arson as a tool for intimidation, revenge, punishment, extortion, or other purpose related to their criminal enterprise (see Gabel 1980; ATF 1981; O'Connor 1981) The groups, like Cosa Nostra and others, use arson for financial motives, including insurance payouts, eliminating costly business ventures, or to put competitors out of business (O'Connor 1981). In 2011, Mexican drug cartel associates allegedly stormed a casino in Mexico and used gasoline to burn the building, killing more than 50 people (BBC 2011); their motive was not immediately apparent, but could have been revenue or intimidation. In late 2010, dozens of fire bombings at cafes and restaurants in Montreal, Canada were linked to Italian organized crime in the city, with the potential motive being revenge for a shooting that killed a leader's son (CBC 2010).

Serial arsonists pose a major problem for law enforcement and fire service officers, since they appear to strike at random and require a significant response. In addition to the public health and safety issues, they strike fear in communities and can terrorize local residents, who do not know when a fire will strike next or when the attacks will cease. The Crime Classification Manual has noted that there are three types of serial arson categories (InterFire 2012): (1) mass arson—a fire-setter who ignites three or more fires at the same site or location during a limited period of time, say a week or a month; (2) spree arson—an arsonist who sets three or more fires at separate locations with no “emotional cooling-off period” between the fires; and (3) serial arson—an offender who sets three or more fires with a “cooling-off period” or break between the fires.

Concern has grown in recent years over the phenomenon known as firefighter “hero” arsons. These cases, where a fire has been intentionally set by a paid or volunteer member of the fire service, has focused attention on the more than 30,000 fire departments across the country, most of whom use volunteers. In 2003, the US Fire Administration issued a technical report on these cases and noted that, while there are no definitive trends in this direction, “firefighters who set criminal fires are responsible for a chain of consequences that negatively affect [fire] department unity, public trust, and oversight.” The report identified several cases where fire service employees and volunteers burned buildings, vehicles, even wildlands, mainly for attention or excitement. “One of the primary motives for firefighters who commit arson is to be seen as a hero. They may be the first to call in a fire, the first on the scene, and one of the most eager, excited, and enthusiastic members of the response team” (US Fire Administration 2003) However, this can be very dangerous. Many fire agencies have recently implemented a number of measures to ensure that candidates do not have behavioral predisposition to commit arson; these can include thorough background investigations, preemployment screenings, psychological examinations, and even polygraph interviews (Haigh 2008).

Juveniles (anyone under 18 years of age) are the most prolific arsonists, according to a US Fire Administration study (1998). These firesetters “tend to be categorized as ‘accidental’; or ‘children playing’,” however, they can be quite a serious community issue. One of the cases cited in the study noted that a department store fire set by a 15-year-old resulted in the death of a fire captain in Omaha, Nebraska. While curiosity and excitement are the largest motivations for juvenile arson, serious arsonists who are young are motivated by three basic needs: (1) calling attention to themselves, or for help in poor family settings; (2) involvement in juvenile gangs, organized criminal activity, or other delinquent group behavior; and (3) arson-for-hire. Specialist intervention, group therapy, and structured social situations are all used to deal with these issues for juveniles who are first time offenders or as a diversion from the traditional juvenile justice system (US Fire Administration 1998).

Careers in the arson investigation field can be varied, but very exciting. The ATF has primary investigative jurisdiction for federal felonies where arson or explosives are used. The ATF hires criminal investigators (special agents) in the 1811 career series, but also hires industry investigators (1810 series) to conduct oversight and regulatory investigations on explosives dealers, federal firearms licensees, and others. Special agents interested in focusing on arson can become Certified Fire Investigators and work primarily arson cases in the ATF field offices. ATF's Forensic Auditors also work alongside the special agents conducting criminal investigations when insurance fraud is suspected in large commercial fires, or when their expertise is requested by local fire or police agencies. The ATF Laboratory also hires qualified chemists, technicians, and other scientists.

Local fire departments can hire full- or part-time fire investigators or fire marshals. Often a prerequisite to these positions is a period of time (usually five years at least) in a fire service position, responding to calls and suppressing fires. Some fire marshals are also sworn law enforcement officers and must complete both the fire academy and the police academy and maintain both certifications, which entails a large amount of training and classroom work. Code enforcement officers are local officials who regulate and enforce the building codes; these individuals are responsible for issuing work permits, monitoring construction progress to ensure the work is up to code, and revoking or issuing “stop work” orders when conditions are unsafe or not to specification.

Insurance companies also hire experts on fire investigation to assist in determining whether to pay insurance claims on property damaged by fire. Special Investigation Units, or SIUs, are the investigative arm of the companies and are usually staffed by retired police investigators with experience in insurance fraud or economic crime. SIUs are unsworn, private investigators, but conduct surveillance, interviews, records checks, and other investigative activity. When arson is suspected, SIUs often work in coordination with police and fire investigators. Insurance adjustors are also officials of the company whose work may take them into the arson field. Adjustors sometimes specialize in appraising fire damage and can become experts in cause and origin investigation.

SEE ALSO: Careers in Law Enforcement; Causation; Elements of a Crime; Juvenile Violence; Mass Murder; Mens Rea; Organized Crime; Serial Murder; Terrorism, Domestic.

References
  • American Insurance Association (1981) Arson insurance investigation. In Grau, J. J. (ed.), Criminal and Civil Investigation Handbook. McGraw-Hill New York, pp. 7-31- 7-54.
  • Anti-Defamation League (2007) 10 ecoterror arsonists sentenced in Oregon. Posted June 13, 2007. http://www.adl.org/learn/extremism_in_america_updates/movements/ecoterrorism/the_family_alf_elf_sentenced.htm, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • ATF (1981) Arson: Overview of Technical and Legal Considerations in Utilizing the 1968 Gun Control Act and the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act in the Federal Prosecution of Arson Crimes. Dept. of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Washington, DC.
  • BBC (2011) Mexico casino arson attack kills dozens in Monterrey. Posted August 26, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-14674706, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • CBC (2010) 9 arrested in Montreal firebombings. Posted May 6, 2010. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2010/05/06/mtl-firebombing-arrests.html, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • DeHaan, J. D. (2002) Kirk's Fire Investigation, 5th edn. Prentice Hall Upper Saddle River NJ.
  • Dervaes, J. R. (2009) Fraud's finer points: Missing disbursement documents. Fraud Magazine, September/October.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (2009) Former accountant of Dundalk law firm admits to stealing over $1 million and arson. Posted September 16, 2009. http://www.fbi.gov/baltimore/press-releases/2009/ba091609.htm, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (2010) 2010 Uniform Crime Reports: Arson. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/property-crime/arsonmain, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • Gabel, M. (1980) Arson and RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations). In Blakey, G. Robert (ed.), Techniques in the Investigation and Prosecution of Organized Crime Materials on RICO. Cornell Institute on Organized Crime Ithaca NY, pp. 211-240.
  • Haigh, C. (2008) Disqualifying Backgrounds for Fire Department Employment. Hanover Park Fire Department Hanover Park IL. http://www.usfa.fema.gov/pdf/efop/efo42933.pdf, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • Icove, D. J.; Wherry, V. B.; Schroeder, J. D. (1998) Combating Arson-for-Profit: Advanced Techniques for Investigators, 2nd edn. Battelle Press Columbus OH.
  • InterFire (2012) The study of serial arsonists. http://www.interfire.org/features/serialarsonists/Motive_based/chapter_1.asp, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • National Fire Protection Association (2005) An overview of the U.S. Fire Problem. http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/PDF/Research/USFires05.pdf, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • National Fire Protection Association (2010) Intentional fires 2010. http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/Latest%20estimates/LatestEstimatesIntentionalFires.pdf, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • National Institute of Justice (2000) Fire and Arson Scene Evidence: A Guide for Public Safety Personnel. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/181584.pdf, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • O'Connor, J. J. (1981) Police arson investigation. In Grau, J. J. (ed.), Criminal and Civil Investigation Handbook. McGraw-Hill New York, pp. 7-55-7-72.
  • Redsicker, D. R.; O'Connor, J. J. (1997) Practical Fire and Arson Investigation. CRC Press Boca Raton FL.
  • United States Attorneys' Manual (1997) Criminal Resource Manual, section 844. http://www.justice.gov/usao/eousa/foia_reading_room/usam/title9/crm01445.htm, accessed February 15, 2013.
  • US Fire Administration (1998) Arson and Juveniles. USFA Emmitsburg MD.
  • US Fire Administration (2003) Firefighter Arson. USFA Emmitsburg MD.
  • US Fire Administration (2009) Arson for Profit. USFA Emmitsburg MD.
  • Colin A. May
    Copyright © 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Arson
    Reader's Guide to the Social Sciences

    Barnett W. M. Spitzer , “Pathological Firesetting, 1951-1991: A Review” , Medicine Science and Law , 34/1 ( 1994 ): 4-20 ...

    Full text Article arson
    Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

    Crime commonly defined by statute as the unlawful damage or destruction of property by means of fire or explosion. In nearly all countries (except

    Full text Article Arson
    Encyclopedia of Capital Punishment in the United States

    The crime of arson is a felony offense that was defined at common law as the unlawful burning of an occupied dwelling of another (modern...

    See more from Credo