Arson: a highly complex crime

By Sonia Isaacs

Bushfire arson a serious crime threat

WITH Sunshine Coast detectives investigating four suspicious bush fires over the past three weeks, the criminal issue and impact of arson warrants exploration. The Australian Institute of Criminology refers to arson as act of intentionally and maliciously destroying or damaging property through the use of fire and in many cases arson is a highly complex crime. Bushfire arson is a serious crime and remains a major threat to regional communities. Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) suggest that up to 50% of all bushfires across Australia are deliberately lit, or start under suspicious circumstances. Aside from the enormous personal and environmental implications, the financial burden of arson is substantial, with QFES referencing a cost of at least $1.6 billion to the Australian public annually.
GC&M News spoke with Dr Sue Eaglesham, a registered psychologist based in Beerwah to find out more about what psychological factors may compel an individual to commit this type of offence. Dr Eaglesham said there were a number of psychological considerations as to why people commit bushfire arson. It could be people who have an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and feel compelled to light fires and act on those compulsions or people who are paranoid and/or delusional who may believe they need to light a fire due to whatever they are seeing or believing in their delusional state. She said another concerning consideration could be the people who want attention and to be involved; who may then raise the alarm, and who may find a way to also be involved in putting the fire out.
“Some of them want to be ‘the hero who rescues the day’ and this may come from a desire to be recognised and possibly an indication of Histrionic personality disorder. Also people who would be on the psychopathic or sociopathic spectrum – they often have a history of anti-social behaviour as young people, may have engaged in cruelty to animals and possibly engaged in fire setting. They display little regard for the lives, welfare or property of others. There may be a history of abuse and a possible anti-social personality disorder,” explained Dr Eaglesham.
Finally, people who have poor impulse control for a variety of reasons such as drug or alcohol abuse, cognitive impairments, or another mental health issue that reduces capacity could also commit arson.
Along with a range of potential for underlying mental illness or imbalance in those that are driven to commit arson, there can also be numerous criminal motives for people to commit arson such as ‘for profit’ in order to collect insurance or acquire land, animosity, vandalism or crime concealment.
Dr Eaglesham acknowledged that sometimes fires are lit by carelessness or by curious children. Neither of these is motivated by malice or with an intention to do harm, and these people may not immediately come forward because they are ashamed or may fear getting into trouble.
“Most importantly, think of the firefighters and volunteers who work to keep people and properties safe following arson attacks. They often work for days at a stretch to put fires out. Consider showing them your support and gratitude,” she said.