Everything You Would Ever Want to Know about Arson, Pyromania, and Serial Fire Starters

Posted on July 7, 2018

Steve Mensing, Editor

**This is an updated version of a Rowan Free Press article appearing in 2013.**

Fire’s Intense Attraction

Who fails to notice a major fire roaring out of control attracts huge crowds and amps up local TV news-viewing? Something innately powerful and magnetic exists about a massive fire whose roiling pillars of flame touch the sky from large buildings, chemical plants or oil refineries, releasing dark smoky plumes and a bright eerie glow witnessed many miles away. No one forgets the Salisbury infernos at historic Grimes Roller Mill or the smoke and flames engulfing the Lyerly Funeral Home. In both fires the skies over Salisbury filled with billowing black clouds and sent flames licking hundreds of feet into the air. Circling news and police helicopters thrummed overhead, their engines carrying across the city. No matter where anyone was on those days, their curiosity drew them outside to watch and share the spectacle with neighbors. All over Salisbury hundreds listened intently to police and fire scanners via the net or hurried indoors to catch breaking TV news. Crowds milled around barricades down on Church Street to watch the Lyerly blaze. Swollen fire hoses crisscrossed streets and sidewalks; neighborhood side streets were cordoned off and traffic rerouted. Electric bullhorns crackled though the arriving sirens. No question large and out-of-control fires interest people and tap into something primal. It’s written in some turn-of-the-century psychiatric tomes that some individuals get such heightened excitement from watching fires they experience a mania like sexual arousal.

Outside of the light and intense heat it provides, fire is regarded by most humans with respect because of its danger. From early childhood, we are taught fire can kill and maim by our parents and caregivers. Early on, we learn that flames are painful if we come too near or touch them. Even minor burns leave lasting impressions. We further our fire education early as we grow up watching the news or reading newspaper accounts about fire’s tremendous destructive force. How about those brush and forest fires burning out of control in the American West? If we watch war documentaries we’ve likely seen entire cities incinerated from night bombing or humans become victims of jellied gasoline. Who can forget the bombing firestorms in Dresden and Hamburg, Germany? The firebombed wooden cities in Japan or the London blazes set off by nighttime Luftwaffe bombing raids? Or General Sherman torching his path through Georgia and the South in our history books?

Major fires have always attracted human beings who recorded them on ancient cave walls and on the dirt floors of Indian cliff dwellings. Fires even show up on the canvases of old masters. Fire has long been associated with our emotions and pain, as in “an incendiary romance that burned unabated for years” or “The embers of his anger renewed his thoughts of going on the Flamesvengeance trail.”

History texts and documentaries record the Great Chicago Fire, where Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lamp that decimated Chicago. Consider the New York’s Great Triangle Fire, where hundreds of sweatshop worker’s charred remains were stacked up at the locked exits or women jumped from windows to die on pavements far below. This historical fire set off improved NYC fire regulations, drew nationwide attention to sweatshop working conditions, and attracted many garment workers to the early union movement. Many film documentaries were produced and books were written about these history making fires.

In recent years in the aftermath of the historic Grimes Roller Mills fire, which decimated a part of history here, many around Salisbury and the county conjecture about the possibility of arson. The Salisbury fire department stated the fire at Grimes Roller Mills was yet of undetermined origin and may never be determined owing to the amount of water pumped into the fire scene. How this blaze began might be anyone’s guess. Could it be a regular electrical fire? A spontaneous combustion? A cigarette carelessly dropped in a trash can or put out on the floor? Or a homeless person who wondered by looking to bed down for the night who got careless with his smokes? Perhaps it was vandal with bad intentions–a hit and run arsonist. Arson is common enough in Salisbury and even out in the County. Arson shows up in fire department statistics and FBI UCR crime stats.

Arson and Arsonists

Arson basically is a crime of maliciously and willfully setting fire for illegal purposes. Why do arsonists ignite fires? Many reasons exist, but the major ones fall into these categories:

Insurance Fraud. These arsonists or the people who pay them for their services are looking to score fast money from a fire insurance policy on a tough-to-sell home or a failing business. Arsons are said to rise during tough economic times. Some individuals will get a payoff from reporting losing valuables in a burned property. Generally, these valuables are removed from the premises prior to the blaze. A major warehouse, no longer in use, can be cooked for insurance. Criminal sociopaths, caring little for the loss of human life or property that arson leaves in its wake, acknowledge that arson is a relatively easy crime to commit and get away with. “I got mine – who cares? They should’ve had insurance–that’s on them.” Greed is behind much arson – good old monetary gain.

Illegal Activity Cover-Up. The arsonist desires to evade evidence of another crime–classic dusting over their trails. Perhaps a murder, rape, embezzlement, a major theft, criminally altered records, or a gangland payback occurred. Records, bodies, DNA, inventory can disappear without a trace after a major blaze. What was actually missing? Fire investigators search out clues for theft and break-ins – these are among the first evidences to be hunted in a suspected arson.

Simple Revenge. Did someone hold a grudge against the property owner? Passionate hatred sometimes fuels the motives for major arson. “You burned me sucker–get ready for a payback!” A flaming gas bottle with a rag fuse shatters a large plate glass window, spraying glass shards and burning gasoline in all directions. Within moments, the business’s entire front is engulfed in flames, and someone does a quick fade around the corner.

Vandalism. One of the foremost reasons why arson takes place is hit and run vandalism to abandoned buildings, homes and even forests. Drunks with nothing better to do, torch buildings – watch for a bit and amble on.

Pyromania. True pyromania is a compulsion to start fires, and it comprises only a small percentage of persons starting fires. What little is known about this rare compulsion is that it’s male dominated (90% of all pyromaniacs are male). The behavior often commences in childhood by turning in false alarms, being a fire spectator, and showing a strong interest in fire engines and fire apparatus. Some pyromaniacs have enlisted in volunteer fire departments or even become fire inspectors. The urge to start a fire is difficult to control for these people, yet a true pyromaniac will have planned their fires. Frequently they leave clues. The standard criteria for pyromaniacs is: (1) More than once deliberately starting a fire. (2) Pyromaniacs experiences stress and excitement prior to starting a fire. (3) This person gains a sense of pleasure and satisfaction in setting fires. (4) The act of fire starting is not part of an anti-social personality disorder, mania, or a conduct disorder. (5) Further, the act is not done for financial gain, to conceal a crime, to express anger, to conduct political extremism, and is not the product of impaired judgment, delusions, or hallucinations.

Mentally Ill Fire-starters. Some individuals driven to “smoke” a building or a famous landmark are turned on by an overwhelming impulse to watch a major blaze of their own making. They may love the beauty and rapture of a towering inferno and the pathological control coming with decimating large structures. Much like the excitement some mass murderers experience as they go on a killing frenzy, the mentally ill fire-starter here may suffer from bi-polar disorder, schizo-affective disorder, or paranoid schizophrenia–sometimes even a major brain anomaly or an ill-placed brain tumor. Some fire-starters are sexually excited by a blaze and will act out their sexual impulses in the shadow of trees or behind parked vehicles. A small number may be serial arsonists, leaving a swath of charred ruins throughout urban areas or small towns. Within a few weeks or months they can terrorize a city or town, leaving burned-out ruins for miles and charred bodies waiting to be identified.

The Terrorist’s Political Statement or The Spread of Terror. Who hasn’t seen a video report of major fire bombings in the Middle East or the incineration of churches in Alabama or Mississippi during the Civil Rights Era? Or the 1933 Reichstag Fire employed by Hitler in his rise to power. Major arsons are a terribly effective way of stamping a political position on the public consciousness and evoking terror.

Murder and Suicide. Fire, because of its excruciating agony, is rarely used as a suicide method, but it does happen. Dousing themselves with flammable liquids and then turning themselves into a human torches has served Buddhist monks in making a statement. Murder by fire is a little more common because of strong vengeance motives. Mostly investigators find that victims were murdered prior to the arson then left in fires to get rid of evidence. Know this: most fires do not burn hot enough to completely cremate a body. It takes about 1500 degrees Fahrenheit to fully incinerate a corpse and reduce it to bone fragments and ash. Larger more potent fires consume a building too fast to sustain high enough temperatures for a long enough period to thoroughly cremate. Most times, medical examiners can find traces of poison and traumas to the body in a badly burned corpse.

Arson Evidence and Fire Causes

Frequently it is very difficult to detect the causes of arson or for that matter any fire. Why? Most, if not all, of the evidence is burnt up especially in a major blaze. Blasts make the fire scene even more challenging to assess. Sometimes fire personnel accidently destroy evidence. Arson investigators need to uncover what caused the fire and the fire’s “point of origin”. The investigators zero in on chemical and physical evidence to narrow down their search for evidence. Was the fire an accident? Or was it intentional? What were the possible motives if it was intentional? Keep in mind the majority of arsons are never prosecuted. Only 25% of suspected arsonists are ever convicted. Arsonists who murder and get caught mostly get life imprisonment and seldom death sentences.

Two Important Arson Questions: How Did the Fire Start? Where Did the Fire Start?

When fire investigators enter a fire scene they must exercise caution. First, they need a go ahead from a structural engineer, and second, they need to be hyper-alert for falling beams, unstable floors waiting to give out, dangerous fumes, and still smoldering materials. They best combine caution with speed in gathering evidence. Volatile substances, often causing and accelerating fires, are frequently primary evidence that may quickly dissipate. Investigators also must discover where the fire started so they can evaluate materials for signs of whether the fire was an arson or accidental. Older heads in fire investigations realize if a fire’s origin is near electrical outlets the fire was very likely accidental. If the fire began in a distant corner of the building, far from electrical outlets, arson is a higher probability. Further, if charred containers of flammable fluid or gas cans are nearby, arson is a likely cause. Most arsonists favor starting fires by igniting accelerants.

Finding Witnesses and Getting Them to Talk

While the investigative team gathers physical evidence, the fire marshal or fire chief interviews the building’s neighbors, employees, owners, or anyone else who might offer important clues and information such as:

*What the fire appeared like in it’s earliest stages.
*The color of it’s smoke and flames.
*Signs of forced entry.
*Whether anyone was in the area or working there.
*If any explosions occurred.
*What flammable materials were in the building.
*If there was vandalism recently in the neighborhood.
*If any bystanders have wet pants below the beltline. (Often a sign of an overly-excited pyromaniac.)
*If the owner has been threatened recently.
*Observations of the first-in fire fighters.
*Determining who reported the fire.
*Reports of owners and occupants.
*Reports of last persons to leave the building.
*Reports from neighbors, the injured and bystanders

Where Did the Fire Start?

Key to finding the fire’s “point of origin” are these vital questions:

*In which direction did the fire travel?
*Did it travel sideways and upwards from the potential starting point?
*Was the fire pattern influenced by structural and decorative building elements?
*Did rugs or flooring contain combustible chemicals that might steer the fire?
*Did the stairwells or windows, with their drafts, influence the fire’s direction?
*How was the fire’s route defined?
*Distribution of debris and broken glass?
*Where is the building most heavily damaged?
*Did a tell-tale V-pattern exist in the burn path?
*Could flammable liquids have interfered in detecting the point of origin?
*Were there signs of multiple origin points like the kind an arsonist might leave if starting multiple fires within the building?
*Did steel beams buckle from intense heat?
*Did the walls and floors show cracks and flaking–further signs of intense heat and fire origins?
*Do the building’s smoke detectors provide times of being set off? The earliest times may be give away the fire’s point of origin.
*Are there signs of someone spreading flammable liquids around?
*Were there signs of a combustible container’s explosion?

How Did the Fire Start?

After discovering the fire’s point of origin, the hunt begins for the blaze’s cause. Was it accidental, natural (lightening strikes) or intentional? What circumstances and factors were involved in this fire? All possible ignition sources are examined: electrical outlets, wiring, kerosene heaters, candles, cigarettes, fireplaces, and known spontaneous combustibles where internal chemical reactions trigger fires.

Usual Ways of Igniting a Fire

An arsonist’s blaze is often created with a simple match. A match carelessly tossed aside can later turn up as important evidence of an arson. Matches, while not surviving a fire intact, leave a silica residue which can help identify the manufacturer’s brand and later lead to clinching the case against the arsonist. Candles left on a pile of paper or inflammable fluid soaked rags will point out the fire’s ignition. When the candle burns down – whaap! Another ignition trick, used by experienced arsonists, is to lay a lit cigarette on top of a box of matches. Even complex electrical timers can come into play.

Unnatural and Non-accidental Sources of Fire

If investigators can’t find a natural or accidental source of fire, their attention turns toward intentional fires. Their suspicions climb when they locate accelerants which make a fire burn faster and hotter. Generally, accelerants are gasoline, kerosene, paint thinners, and alcohol–all highly combustible chemicals. Sometimes natural gas and propane are employed. Using such accelerants assure a fast and furious fire – the kind that spreads rapidly though out a building and consumes it quickly. Often traces of these accelerants remain and are likely found in a building’s surviving cracks and crevices – soaked into rugs and flooring materials. Experienced investigators know where to search. Samples are gathered and brought back to labs. Accelerant-sniffing dogs and chemical detectors are brought to the scene. A more famous chemical detector is the Vapor Trace Analyzer, useful for “sniffing” out accelerant residues. Chemical samples are placed in sealed containers for lab studies. Carpets, flooring material, and tile adhesives are carefully inspected for volatile hydrocarbon residue. Lab workers employ solvent extraction, steam distillation, vapor concentration and headspace vapor extraction before they turn their attention to gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy, and infrared spectrophotometry. After a thorough examinations, they draw their conclusions from this combination of tests.

Homicide Fires

Not infrequently in arsons, bodies are found in the charred ruins. Sometimes the victim did not perish as the result of the fire. This is when the medical examiner weighs in along with homicide investigators. They painstakingly uncover the victim’s identity and exact cause of death, utilizing the body’s location and evidence of smoke inhalation. Was this person alive at the time of the fire’s start? Were there wounds? Tell-tale signs of mayhem? What was the body’s position? A fetal position or a boxer’s posture means nothing because dehydration and natural muscle contraction from death can bring a body to this stance. The body’s positioning means much. Natural death in a fire is often by suffocation and carbon monoxide intoxication.

Explosive Fires

Explosive fires may be set off by dynamite or contained combustibles. The rates of such fires is extremely fast and the surrounding structure shows heavy damage. Parts of a building may be quite a distance from the original site. When explosive devices are used, locating their fragments and timers can be difficult and painstaking. Often bombs are fashioned using black powder, smokeless gunpowder, or even home-brew creations made from combining potassium chloride and table sugar – still the makings of a crude yet decent bomb. More complex bombs are made from lead azide and mercury fulminate. Add to the list of bomb explosives: TNT, dynamite, RDX, ANFO, and PETN. Unexploded residue at bomb sites is easy enough to find and identify. With some luck and much legwork, the investigators may be able to trace this explosive residue back to the purchaser.

Only 25% of Arsonists are Ever Brought to Justice

While arson is a common and horrific crime, it is difficult to detect and often arsonists are never brought to justice . Scientific testing can only go so far. Keep in mind fires often burn extremely hot and spread fast, destroying everything around them including evidence. Water, from high-pressure fire hoses, can also obliterate evidence. With all the investigatory barriers considered, catching even a quarter of these fire-starting criminals is to be lauded.

An outstanding read, about one of the most prolific firebugs in history, is Josephs Wambaugh’s true account of John Leonard Orr, a pyromaniac and former fire investigator said to have set thousands of fires in California: Fire Lover. Mr. Orr is now serving a life sentence for four murders resulting from those arsons. Wambaugh, a former detective with the LAPD, previously wrote the major bestsellers The Onion Field and The Choir Boys, both since turned into films.

Salisbury, N.C. Ranked No. 1 in Murder and Arson among North Carolina Cities with Populations of 25,000 Plus:


Posted in: Articles