What’s in the mind of a forest fire arsonist?

August, without any argument, has been a very bad month for forest fires. Despite all the activities to help prevent fires, some of the worst fires for years occurred in the north of Portugal and Madeira.

On the mainland at its height on August 8, there were some 515 wildfires, with over 4,000 firefighters tackling these, using over 1,000 vehicles and 16 aircraft/helicopter. It is estimated that the area burned amounted to about 116,017 hectares in the week ending August 12. This includes over 3,000 hectares in Madeira and 1,959 hectares in the Algarve. By comparison, from the start of the year until August 5, the area burned was 85,146 hectares.

Six people died – four in Madeira and two on the mainland.

It is a fact that some 98% of forest fires are caused by negligence. The remaining 2% includes those caused deliberately.

Profile of those arrested for forest fires

The Polícia Judiciária (PJ) have arrested 48 people so far this year for setting fire to forests and rural areas. I have undertaken an analysis of 42 of these arrests which were made by the PJ since the beginning of July. The results are interesting.

The ages of those arrested ranged from the youngest aged 24, allegedly responsible for the Madeira fire, and the eldest aged 78. All were men, believed to have acted alone, except for a woman who was arrested in connection with starting a fire in Oliveira do Bairro. The average age of those arrested was 45.

From the information available, it appears that those arrested either intentionally caused fires or were using fire to clean land during the critical fire period which is illegal. From what is known, two were reported as having previous convictions for causing forest fires. At least 16 of those arrested were in connection for causing multiple fires. In one case, a person aged 45, arrested on August 17, is suspected of causing 26 fires in the area of Oliveira de Azeméis, and another suspected of causing around 3 dozen fires since 2013.

It is believed that at least six of those arrested suffered from alcoholism and/or were under the influence of alcohol at the time – one being a drug user. Of those arrested at least seven were unemployed, although this figure may well be higher. An interesting factor is that at least five had previously watched fires burning and were motivated by this; in one case the person being influenced by the site of helicopters fighting fires.

In most cases, the method used to cause the fire was a cigarette lighter with at least three being accompanied by some form of accelerant.

Disorders evident in recent fires

The Madeira fire is alleged to have been caused by a 24 year old, named in the media as Paulo Gonçalves, after a morning spent drinking and smoking hashish. He is in custody awaiting trial and is reported to have confessed to the crime. What charges he may face, however, have yet to be determined as three people died in the fire and over 300 people were treated for smoke inhalation. In addition, around 1,000 people were displaced and in Funchal 208 properties were damaged, including the five-star Choupana hotel. Tourists were evacuated from several hotels as a precaution. The cost required to make good the damage is estimated to be €55 million.

A man who was arrested for allegedly causing 12 fires in an area between the beaches of Marinha and Benagil, in the western Algarve, is believed to have a criminal record and mental disorders.

Perhaps one of the worst cases of an apparent personality disorder that led to the death of four firefighters occurred in 2013. A year later, at the trial of the two persons accused of causing the death of the firefighters (three males and one female) in the arson attack in the Caramulo mountains in August 2013, one of the two defendants confessed to the crime, telling the court that he “liked to see everything on fire”, but says he later repented.

Preventing the fighting of a forest fire

An unusual arrest was made by the PJ’s Vila Real criminal investigation unit in July 2016. A man, aged 52, was arrested for trying to prevent a helicopter from collecting water to fight a nearby forest fire.

The incident took place on July 17, 2016, at about 7.20pm, in the parish of Vila Nova de Souto d’El Rei, in Lamego, with the accused aiming a shotgun at the pilot of a helicopter trying to collect water from two water tanks on his land. The fire was close by and threatened his property and the action prevented the collection of the water. Impeding the work of firefighters is a crime.

Psychology and profiling arsonists

Firstly, what is arson? One common definition is “intentionally, deliberately and maliciously setting fire to buildings, wild-land areas, vehicles or other property with the intent to cause damage”.

Despite a great deal of research, arson psychology – and thus the police’s ability to profile and detain suspects – remains a very inexact science. Only a tiny percentage of arsonists are caught and human motivation is, in any case, notoriously mixed.

However, the profile of these arsonists often points to them being unemployed, with low educational level, without caring relationships and with alcohol or drug problems. On occasions a falling out of a relationship or an argument with a loved one can be a trigger point.

From those arrested by the PJ, some have previous criminal records for causing fires and others for causing multiple fires. It is interesting to compare these with studies in the UK that suggest that a serial arsonist tends to live close to the targets and tends not to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and does not normally suffer impulse-control disorders such as pyromania. The latter is defined by one forensic psychology practice as: deliberate and purposeful; interest/curiosity/fascination with fire; gratification/relief from fire setting; not for monetary/political gain and not necessarily a manic episode/antisocial personality disorder.

Excitement is a clear driving force to fire-setting, either from the point of view of retreating to a safe distance to blend in with other onlookers, or to become the unwitting hero and make attempts to help with the danger.

This is important and is the reason why police here in Portugal are asking people to be on the lookout for anyone acting suspiciously in the area of fires. At least three of those arrested have showed a fascination with fires.

Amusing justice

If ever there was an amusing conclusion to this very depressing subject, it is the recent case of a Wayne Allen Huntsman, aged 39, who started a devastating forest fire in California and was found guilty of arson thanks to evidence he provided himself in the form of a video.

Using his mobile phone to record a selfie-video, and a message to his girlfriend boasting of the fire he started, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison and given a $60m fine after pleading guilty to starting the fire, which destroyed 97,717 acres of Californian forest over 27 days.

By David Thomas
|| [email protected]

David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at