Hundreds of lives are lost each year in arson-related fires, and thousands suffer burns and other injuries as a result of these crimes. In addition, arson is very financially costly to our society.
Arson is the crime of setting a fire with intent to cause damage. Under the criminal law of most states, arson is committed when a person intentionally burns almost any kind of structure or building, not just a house or business.
There are two degrees of the crime of arson.
- Arson in the first degree occurs when a person knowingly and maliciously causes a fire or explosion:
- which is dangerous to any human life (including firemen);
- that damages a dwelling;
- in which there is a person present who is not a participant of the crime; or
- where there is property valued at $10,000 or more with the intent to collect insurance proceeds.
First degree arson is a class A felony offense.
- Arson in the second degree occurs when a person knowingly and maliciously cause a fire or explosion that damages such structures as buildings, bridges, vehicles, agriculture, or any other property. Second degree arson is a class B felony offense.
Only fires determined through investigation to have been willfully or maliciously set are classified as arsons. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is the lead federal agency responsible for investigating major arson and explosive crimes.
The main motivations for committing arson tend to fall under the categories of:
Vandalism – Typically committed by male juveniles who have completed seven to nine years of school. The crime tends to occur spontaneously and is often done by groups. Frequently, entry is gained through force, such as through a window, and the fire is started with materials present at the scene.
Excitement – Excitement-motivated arsonist starts fires to satisfy a craving for excitement. These fires rarely harm people. In some cases of deserted structures, volunteer firefighters and “firebuffs” may be culprits. Slightly older than the vandal, this arsonist tends to have completed ten or more years of school, but generally still lives with one or more parents. He tends to be socially inadequate and has a police record of nuisances.
Revenge – Revenge-motivated arson is done in retaliation for some wrong done against the arsonist, real or imagined, by society, a person or group of persons, or some establishment. It may be a well-planned, single occurrence or a serial arsonist taking revenge on society with little or no planning. The victim of this type of arson usually has a history of conflicts with the perpetrator, and the arson tends to be intraracial. Females tend to target personal possessions, as do romantically slighted revenge-takers. Females tend to use readily accessible flammables, while men prefer Molotov cocktails and/or excessive amounts of accelerant.
Crime Concealment – The fire may be used to destroy bodies, forensic evidence, records, or to distract from the real crime (such as in burglary). The perpetrator commonly uses alcohol or drugs and usually has a history of police or fire department contacts or arrests. In the case of murder-concealment, a liquid accelerant is often used, and the crime tends to be disorganized.
Profit – The purpose of profit-motivated arson is to achieve monetary gain. This category includes fraud, employment and competition. One of the most commonly heard of is insurance fraud. These fires tend to be more sophisticated with less physical evidence and more complex fire-starting devices. Frequently, the offender is hired, leaves the crime scene and does not return.
Extremist – Extremist-motivated arson is done to further a cause. Categories such as terrorism, riots and discrimination fall under this distinction. The target usually represents the antithesis of the offender’s belief. It is usually organized, planned and done in groups. Explosive devices such as Molotov cocktails are commonly used. The offender is often readily identified with the cause or group behind this crime.
If you or someone you know thinks you are a victim of arson and would like to report the crime, contact your local law enforcement agency. If additional services are needed contact your local Crime Victim Advocacy Program.
The steps to take:
- Contact the American Red Cross for immediate relief of basic needs.
- Discuss the crime with your local fire department and law enforcement.
- Document all information you have regarding the events leading up to the fire.
- If you have insurance, contact your company and inform them of the incident.
For additional information, please contact (for internet links, please see USEFUL LINKS section of this site):
Crime Victims Advocacy Network
Mason, Thurston, Lewis, Grays Harbor, Pacific Counties, WA
2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Bldg. 2, Rm. 258
Olympia, WA 98502
Your State Attorney General, County/City Prosecutor, or County/City Law Enforcement: check in the Blue Pages of your local phone book under the appropriate section heading of either “Local Governments,” “County Governments,” or “State Government.”
National Crime Prevention Council
1700 K Street, NW, 2nd Floor
Washington, DC 20006-3817
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
650 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Insurance Information Institute
110 William Street, 24th Floor
New York, NY 10038
National Arson Prevention Clearinghouse
16825 South Seton Avenue Suite D001
Emmitsburg, MD 21727
All rights reserved. Copyright © 2001 by the National Center for Victims of Crime. This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, in its entirety and includes this copyright notice.