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What is Arson?

Updated on May 14, 2010

Arson is most often defined as the willful and malicious burning of the real or personal property of oneself or another. It usually is committed covertly during the hours of darkness and out of sight of witnesses. There is usually no complaining witness as there is in other crimes, and since fire normally tends to destroy its own evidence, obtaining the legally required evidence
or criminal origin is difficult. Arson has been called the easiest crime to commit and the hardest to detect, investigate, and successfuly prosecute.

Motives for setting fires are many and varied. They include revenge, spite, jealousy, intimidation, harassment, vandalism, excitement, and relief from tension. Arson also is committed in an attempt to defraud insurance companies or to conceal evidence of theft, embezzlement, and other crimes.

A term frequently associated with incendiarism is pyromania, or pathological fire setting. Pyromaniacs suffer from a mental disorder associated with morbid repetitive impulses to set fires.

Statistics of the National Fire Protection Association show that in the mid-1960's, about 31,000 building fires of suspicious and incendiary origin occurred annually in the United States, causing damages estimated at nearly $70 million. While these represented only a small percentage of the total number of building fires, another area of possible incendiarism existed in 65,000 building fires of undetermined origin, with a monetary loss of nearly $500 million.

The Fraud and Arson Bureau of the American Insurance Association, which cooperates with authorities throughout the United States, conducted 4,393 investigations into fires of suspicious and incendiary origin in 1965. Of these, 836 fires were considered to have been set for recovery of insurance, which amounted to $46,221,000. A total of 671 persons were arrested during these investigations, including the so-called "pathologicals," unlawful intruders, revenge-motivated persons, vandals, and fraud fire-setters. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report shows that in the mid-1960's, arrests for arson averaged over 5,000 yearly, of which over 3,000 involved persons under 18 years of age.

Arson seminars, taught by experts, are held annually at leading universities in the United States. Topics discussed include laws of search, seizure, and confession; tracing the origins of fires; electrical and other accidental origins of fires and explosions; collection and preservation of evidence; motivation of fire-setters; and forensic laboratory identification of evidence.

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