Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Arson: Exploring Motives and Possible Solutions

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Arson: Exploring Motives and Possible Solutions

Article excerpt

The arson rate in Australia has climbed significantly over the past 30 years. From geographical and environmental perspectives, Australia is at extreme risk of bushfires, yet there is virtually no empirical data concerning bushfire arsonists, or arsonists in general, in Australia.

Over 30 years the Australian population has grown by 50 per cent, while recorded arsons ha ve increased by almost 2, 000 per cent. If the current arson rate continues to grow as it has, the number of cases reported to police nationwide will approximately double every 10 years.

This paper explores the possible motives for arson, with special attention given to psychological disorders that may be associated with fire-starting. Also investigated are methods to tackle the problem of arson, including public awareness campaigns and fire safety education for young people.

As fire has such a devastating effect, prevention mechanisms should work from a sound knowledge base. Unfortunately, this is lacking in Australia today and the current shortage of scientific research on arsonists is a significant obstacle to reducing the problem of arson in Australia.

Adam Graycar


Australia has had a long and dramatic history with fire. The Ash Wednesday fires, the Kings Cross backpacker hostel fire, the Childers hostel fire and the 2001 Black Christmas bushfires are among the most recent and memorable. In keeping with the spectacular nature of fire itself, incidents of arson attract sensational media attention, particularly when lives and property are threatened.

"Arson", for the purposes of this discussion, refers to the crime of deliberately setting fire to property. The incidence of arson throughout Australia has significantly increased over the past four decades (Nicolopoulos 1994) with the cost to the community measured annually in the hundreds of millions of dollars (Chappell 1994).

Invariably whenever arson occurs, one question always stirs the public conscience: why do some people deliberately light fires to cause harm? The purpose of this paper is to provide an introduction to the motivational and psychological factors operating in some individuals who commit arson, and to offer suggestions aimed at tackling the problem of arson in Australia.

Possible Motives for Committing Arson

This paper identifies six possible motives for arson, namely:

* profit;

* animosity;

* vandalism;

* crime concealment;

* political objectives; and

* psych opathological factors.

At the outset it must be understood that human behaviour can seldom be adequately explained in categorical terms. Any classification of offenders is limited by the often multiple and heterogeneous factors typically operating in any one circumstance (Gold 1962). For example, no discreet entity of "crime concealment" arsonist exists - it is invariably possible to discern other elements operating in the mind of such an offender, such as "animosity" (Prins, Tennent & Trick 1985).

Similarly, demographic profiles of the "typical" arsonist can be misleading. Such profiles are often aggregated from samples of apprehended offenders. As the clearance rate for arson is remarkably poor, bias is likely to exist in such samples (Chappell 1994). Nonetheless, a system of classification may serve as a guide for the range of factors possibly in operation. It is in this capacity that the present six motives have been composed, based upon studies of arsonists conducted predominantly in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.


A profit motive is one where the offender derives some material gain or benefit from setting a fire (Kocsis & Irwin 1997). Thus, monetary needs and desires typically underpin profit motives. The "benefits" inherently connected with profit motive arson typically originate either from a direct or indirect link with the offender. …

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