Arsonists… including firefighters

A Newsweek article explores in depth the minds of arsonists, mostly wildland fire arsonists. It covers, among other examples, the Esperanza fire of last October 26 which killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in southern California.

Here are some excerpts:

The twisted thoughts and actions of one legendary arsonist would make a movie—and did. John Orr was the fire captain and arson investigator for the Glendale (Calif.) Fire Department. Orr had a way of smelling fires and getting there before anyone else. “People looked up to him,” recalls Tom Propst, a young fire-prevention inspector at the Glendale FD in the early ’90s. Propst recounted arriving at the site of a brush fire in a canyon area near Glendale and—as always—Orr was already there. “He was shouting stuff like, ‘We need to get crews above,’ and giving directions. He always knew where the fire hydrants were.” At the time, Propst says, “We just thought, ‘Wow, this guy has such knowledge.’ He was miraculously fast at finding the causes of fires. He could dig through the ashes, narrow it down and we’d be, like, ‘Man, you’re good’.”

Investigators now believe Orr started more than 2,000 fires throughout California between 1984 and 1991. ATF fire investigator Mike Matassa puts the cost of Orr’s arson in the tens of millions. In 1992, Orr was convicted of killing four people who died when a hardware store burned in Pasadena. Among the evidence used against him was a novel Orr had written called “Points of Origin,” about a firefighter named Aaron who sets fires. A sample passage: “To Aaron, the smoke was beautiful, causing his heart rate to quicken and his breathing to come in shallow gasps. He was trying to control his outward appearance and look normal to anyone around him. He looked around and saw nothing, the lot was empty. He relaxed and partially stroked his erection, watching the fire.” Crime novelist and former LAPD detective Joseph Wambaugh tells NEWSWEEK, “if you read it, you’ll encounter more erections than at the Playboy Mansion.” Wambaugh later wrote “Fire Lover: A True Story” about Orr; HBO made a movie that told his story. Wambaugh communicates with Orr, who is in prison for life. “Orr is affable and intelligent,” says Wambaugh. “By no means is he psychotic.”


The arsonist who sets fires for sexual gratification is rare, says Bruce Varga, an arson specialist with the Milford, Conn., Fire Department and an adjunct fire instructor at the University of New Haven. Many arsonists are merely pathetic attention seekers. “We had one volunteer fireman who organized a bunch of small forest fires about two years ago,” says David West, chief of law enforcement for the South Carolina Forestry Commission. “He would have these two young boys set the fires for him in Kershaw County so he could put them out.” West says the young man “wanted to be a paid firefighter. He was a good kid; he just messed up. He told me one time that he just loved helping people—it was the thrill of helping people that moved him.”

In the early 1990s, Ken Cabe, the now retired fire-prevention coordinator for the South Carolina Forestry Commission, partnered with the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Division in Quantico, Va., to examine the phenomenon of firemen arsonists. They developed a screening test to determine which firemen applicants were at high risk of becoming firebugs. “We were arresting 40-some firemen a year, which led us to look at the problem,” says Cabe. “It’s the kind of thing that everyone knows about but it’s embarrassing to discuss, so no one addresses it.” Cabe and the FBI campaigned to get fire departments to use the test, and as potential firebugs were screened out, the numbers of firemen arrested for arson plummeted from around 40 to about three a year. “Most of these kids are not bad people, they are not out to hurt people,” says Cabe. “But they just are not particularly thoughtful or mature. They are lonely and often depressed and just want to feel more important. When they get caught, the first thing they say to the arresting officer is almost always, ‘Does this mean that I can’t be a fireman anymore?’ “

John Cleese, who co-wrote and co-starred in three Monty Python movies, wrote a blog post about firefighter-arsonists:

Firemen and Arsonists

Firemen quite understandably get a lot of good press, what with saving lives by rescuing people from burning buildings, their great capacity to remain taciturn in the face of adversity and bad pay, pumping gallons of water whilst man-handling all kinds of modern technical equipment, and the admirable practice of retrieving the cat/dog/horse from the top of the tree/bottom of the well/wrong bedroom.

But it’s not just the rippling muscles and the courage in adversity that causes us to find them so heroic and attractive. For every hero there is an anti-hero; for every Clarisse there is a Hannibal; and it is the shady figure of the arsonist, whose flickering light throws the fireman’s darkest shadows, which gives us to this day our modern figure of comforting authority.

Now, this is not some kind of apology for fraudsters and murderers, but the fireman’s lot would be more humdrum if the kinds of problems he encountered were just dumb, by which I mean, the mundane occurrence of the conflagration of the toaster. That kind of randomly chaotic event seems comprehensible to us, on whatever scale it happens, whether it be the end of the match flying off and burning a small hole in an expensive item of clothing, or a meteorite colliding with the earth. Despite the fact that we cannot actually explain them, our minds seem to accept them. “Oh dear, there’s a hole in my best frock” – “Oh well, that’s the end of life on earth as we know it.”

However, the concept of some malign intelligence with evil purpose actually weakening a matchstick in every box fills us with dread and a terrible sense of threat, and the idea that the meteorite that is coming our way was thrown at us like a cricket ball from a planetary system several universes away gives us nightmares, even though the outcome is exactly the same.

The reason for this of course is that evil is a human attribute. Though we know there is a gulf between us, we consider the arsonist as one of us, and we comprehend that we could potentially be the arsonist ourselves “gone bad”.

Being consciously aware of this tendency is extremely difficult for most people, as we find the concept of firemen arsonists or murdering nurses almost impossible to digest, or to forgive. But, in our secret hearts, we identify as much with the villain as the hero, and it is this which causes us to be so scared. This is a useful piece of knowledge for novelists, authors, screenwriters, detectives, judges, politicians, parents and comedians to have, but it’s also a mindful position to occupy as we aspire and seek to emulate anyone’s heroics.

Now, pass me the hose would you, I’m going to put the cat out.

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