Catching Arsonists Red-Handed
A small but significant number of wildfires are intentionally set. The fire starters often share characteristics but aren’t always cut from the same cloth.
The war being waged against wildfires from Southern California to Greece and Australia is almost as complex as the infernos themselves. Innovative computer mapping tools advance, as do airborne imaging techniques that can look straight through black smoke for views of emerging dangers no firefighter ever sees. However, some crews battle blazes on bulldozers older than they are, and funding is tight all around. Still, the breakthroughs keep coming.
Part I: THE POWER OF ‘LOOK-DOWN’ TECHNOLOGY
Part II: UNDERSTANDING WILDFIRE BEHAVIOR AND PREDICTING ITS SPREAD
Part III: WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING ON U.S. FIRELINES
Part IV: CATCHING WILDFIRE ARSONISTS RED-HANDED
Part V: SMART SOLUTIONS GOING FORWARD
Sixty-year-old grandmother Charmian Glassman, aka Ma Sparker, started 11 separate fires at Northern California’s Mt. Shasta in 1995, setting each within 10 feet of where she stopped her new Buick at the side of a winding woodsy road.
Her motive? To give her forest firefighter son enough fires to fight to prove himself a hero.
Consultant Paul Steensland, a veteran fire investigator and retired U.S. Forest Service senior special agent, frequently mentions this case when lecturing fire investigators. It’s a cautionary tale about getting too deeply invested in “profiles” of arsonists derived from the analysis of past offenders.
Although every arson case is different, these profiles — the most notable generated by research conducted by the FBI and the South Carolina Forestry Service in the mid-1990s — are markedly similar: Caucasian males in their teens or 20s, unemployed or marginally employed, blue-collar background, living alone or with parents. The profiles’ acceptance is why, even as officers were desperately searching for their arsonist on Mt. Shasta, Charmian Glassman managed to set a couple of fires right under their noses.
“She literally lit two fires within less than 50 feet of where officers were in the brush,” Steensland recalled, “because they just saw her pull by and could see her in her car and said, ‘She’s a grandmother.’ They had been conditioned to look for young white males.”
Fires and Firebugs
In 2006, more than 16,000 wildfires were attributed to lightning, but, whether accidentally, carelessly or malevolently, human beings cause far more wildfires than lightning or any other natural cause, be it the sun beating down on a piece of glass and igniting nearby brush, or a hot tailpipe igniting dead grass.
Over the past decade, on average, people were responsible for 102,000 of the approximately 116,000 annual U.S. wildfires. Overwhelmingly, those human-caused fires were unintentional. Statistics on deliberately set or arson fires not only are hard to come by, they are also opaque since they are compiled piecemeal, and recording and reporting methods vary widely state by state. That said, California Department of Forestry statistics for 2003-2004 attribute 767 wildfires — almost 7 percent of the state’s total that year — specifically to arson.
Few wildland arsonists strike once, then stop. And when they do, failing DNA, a witness, a snitch, a rare confession or some combination thereof, there’s a high likelihood the crime will go unsolved. Single arsons are tough cases to crack.
“They can be solved,” said Steensland, who has investigated fires for 37 years, “but give me the repeat offender any day. Every fire they light adds to the evidentiary pile, and the net draws ever tighter over time.”
Steensland has been instrumental in solving a few single-event arsons, including 2002’s Hayman Fire (2008 update here and the 2003 story here), the largest fire in Colorado history. It burned 137,000 acres and destroyed 37 homes. “There was a lot at stake, and so we were able to bring a very significant investigative effort to bear,” he explained.
That blaze was started by Terry Lynn Barton, a mother of two and also, at the time, a U.S. Forest Service employee. When Steensland was called in to help, he and another investigator found the fire’s point of origin within minutes, spotting three matches in a fire ring with a trail of burned grass leading away from them toward the forest. As the first to spot and call in the fire, requesting backup, Barton was soon on the investigators’ radar. Then, her admission of her involvement in what she insisted was an accidental fire spilled out, but her story didn’t add up for the investigators.
Barton was going through a divorce and claimed that upset, she had burned a love letter from her estranged husband in a campground. But the evidence didn’t fit. Investigators had found the three matches clustered together, but they found no trace whatsoever of ashes from burned paper, and simply weren’t buying the letter-burning story. Ultimately, Barton struck a plea deal and served six years for her crime. She has since been released.
Fifty-five percent of arsonists are kids who are curious about fire, and it’s not uncommon for such youngsters to act in a group. But what is normal curiosity at age 5 sometimes goes beyond that. And adult and child arsonists alike often feel the same irresistible impulse to return to their fire scenes to see their handiwork. Unlike adult arsonists, however, children often are easy to catch.
Ricky Sean Lukacs, 16, was charged as an adult in December 2009 for setting two wildfires involving structures. He is also being investigated for a dozen or so other arson wildfires that date back to 2006 because of certain unspecified commonalities. At the time of his arrest, prosecutors couldn’t comment further.
Earlier this month, shortly before the first anniversary of the deadly Black Saturday fires in Australia’s Victoria state, two teenage boys were charged with lighting at least one of the fires. They were 13 and 14 when the fire occurred.
Most fire-setters crave power, and most are angry, either at someone specific or at the world in general. Beyond that, their specific motivations can vary widely. But many have difficult interpersonal relationships. They may be in a poor marriage or be a loner with few friends. Often, fire starters performed poorly academically and grew up in unstable environments. If they have or had a relationship with their natural father, chances are it was cold, distant, hostile or involved aggression. Drug or alcohol problems are also common, and arsonists may also have antisocial personality disorders. But pyromania? Not so much.
Despite the common use of the term, true pyromaniacs are rare. Pyromania is a clinical diagnosis that encompasses those with irresistible impulses to set fires and those who are aroused by setting fires, and/or seek sexual release from doing so.
Existing arsonist profiles are short on insights into wildland fire-setters because some of the key motives commonly attributed to urban fire-setters — like revenge and financial gain — simply aren’t applicable. The pursuit of revenge might lead someone to set a car or apartment or building alight, but it’s an unlikely motive for a wildland arsonist. Urban arsonists also typically start fires for profit, torching cars, homes, offices or other structures, hoping to collect on insurance policies. By contrast, wildfire arsonists are far more likely to be motivated by psychological factors like anger at society, according to Dr. Damon Muller of the Australian Institute of Criminology.
In 2007, Dave Hillman, then an investigator with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection with four decades’ experience, told ABC News’s Nightline that serial wildland arsonists often have social inadequacies. “They may not have a real strong relationship with their family or with a spouse or significant other,” he said. “And they’re often times loners. They’re also oftentimes associated with a business that allows them to travel on their own independently.”
Some estimate that wildfire arsonists quietly light an average of 35 fires undetected before they are caught. (They might start with a trash can fire then move on to bigger blazes.) So although arson pattern recognition and solve times have improved, clearly, cracking these cases still can be an arduous, frustrating process.
Taken at face value, solve rates certainly look disappointingly low — some estimate they’re 10-15 percent — and conviction rates are even lower. Yet, Steensland insists these grim-sounding statistics be put in context and perspective. He noted that many unsolved fires can track back to a very small number of perpetrators and that one arrest might solve dozens, or even hundreds, of incidents spanning years. Conviction rates alone don’t reflect that kind of numerical possibility.
Inside The Hunt for An Arsonist
Both large and small wildfires start small and low to the ground then widen and grow, leaving visible char or burn marks on trees and foliage, and other signs like soot stains on rocks. Pine needles freeze in the direction a fire is moving, while fallen grass points toward its point of origin. Investigators carefully scrutinize such clues, often working on their hands and knees, armed with magnifying glasses.
“Those are called our macro-scale indicators,” explained Jonathan Calore, the South Carolina Forestry Commission’s assistant law enforcement chief. Then, as those “big picture clues” start disappearing, the hunt is on for, “our micro-scale indicators — those small, minute things. We can work it all the way back down to an exact point of origin.”
Locating a fire’s point of origin is critical to determining how it started and can quickly offer up clues. A fire that tracks back to a backyard fire’s debris probably spread accidentally. A fire sitting alone in 100 acres of wildland with no roads in sight is likely a lighting strike or a naturally caused fire. (Lightning dates and times can then be checked against lightning detection systems.) A single blaze that started at the edge of woods could be an improperly extinguished campfire. But finding a sudden rash of fires in a location where usually there are none is definitely a red flag, a sign that an arsonist could be at work.
Investigating suspicious fires falls to fire investigators like Steensland or law enforcement officers like Calore, and immediately these experts realize that they have a serial arsonist on their hands, they start looking for patterns and scrutinizing all the tiny details of several fires. Steensland hones in on four key areas: “Geospatial, chronological, target selection and modus operandi — identifiable elements, like ignition devices or cigarette butts.” Basically, it’s where and when, what was set on fire and with what.
In South Carolina, Calore finds that serial wildfire arsonists tend to light fires in clusters and to favor wooded areas with two-lane roads. They commonly set small roadside fires, either on the shoulder or just near the edge of the woods. “And by lighting a fire just over the crest of a hill or just around the bend in a road,” he noted, “it affords a little visual protection for the arsonist if someone drives by.”
Raymond Oyler, the mechanic who set at least 23 fires including the Esperanza, Calif., fire that killed five firefighters, is an example of arsonists who start small and accelerate. “Prior to that, his fires were mostly small, but the investigators had been amassing a large amount of evidence, including his DNA,” Steensland recalled. Oyler’s DNA was found in saliva on two cigarette butts plucked from earlier fire scenes. “When he did the Esperanza Fire, they were close to making an arrest based on the previous fires. If only they had …”
Arsonists are disproportionately the first to call to report a fire, or in the case of firefighter arsonists (and yes, there are firefighter arsonists), the first to respond to a fire, and a sharp investigator will notice. Their inability to resist hovering nearby to watch provides another opportunity for investigators. The definition of “nearby” is different with rural fires, though. An arsonist might find a vantage point a half a mile or more from the blaze, perhaps on an adjoining ridge. So, investigators cruise such locations, recording license plate numbers.
Like their city counterparts, wildland investigators look for tire tread impressions or footprints in dirt and any items left behind. Calore typically walks half a mile in each direction, scrutinizing the edge of the brush equidistant from the road to where the first device was found. Often, he’ll find several more matches or devices along the way, possibly tossed aside after failing to ignite properly.
Some arsonists carry away their fire-starting tool, which is often a cigarette lighter. Matches, lighters and cigarettes commonly factor into makeshift incendiary devices. Time-delay devices are sometimes found at the scene, too. “Typically, that’s what we call a slow match,” Steensland explained, “a cigarette stuck in a matchbook or wrapped with matches and thrown out of the window of a moving vehicle.”
Matches are often attached to cigarettes with rubber bands, tape, wire, string, thread or glue. Yet, cigarettes don’t burn well and can be found virtually intact after a fire. And, if an arsonist leaves behind even one match, investigators may well find it because a fire’s point of origin often won’t consume an entire match, only its outer layers.
Arsonists have their own rituals, and Steensland recalls one who routinely consumed a few beers before starting a fire. “He’d park a short distance up the road, have the beers, then drive down and light the fires. We were able to recover fingerprint evidence off of those beer cans. So we don’t limit ourselves to the immediate fire area.”
Once a pattern of serial arsons is recognized, things can move fast. Surveillance people are brought in, hidden cameras set up. “If the guy lights within that area we are watching, we can usually identify him within no more than two fires,” said Steensland.
A typical operation today involves digitally encrypted radios, so a potential suspect can’t overhear radio conversations, mobile phones and, of course, crime lab technology. “To take a metal fragment that we suspect caused a fire and link it back to a particular piece of equipment because of its molecular fingerprint,” said Steensland, “that would have been simply unheard of 10 years ago.”
Suspects are still tailed at times by air, but remote camera traps have rendered those techniques largely redundant. If an arsonist is starting fires up and down a stretch of road, investigators follow the linear pattern and set camera traps so that nobody can enter the area without passing a video camera. Then, with cameras in place, they play a waiting game for the next fire.
“Guess what?” said Steensland. “Only one car went through that area on both days fires occurred. That’s probably our person. Rarely is it more than two cars. And by the third time, it’s down to one, for sure. Once we’ve got a geospatial pattern analyzed, we can predict with actually surprising accuracy where they’re likely to set another fire. We’ve literally had people in the brush photographing the suspect as they get out of their vehicle and set the fire.”
During an epic three-year investigation to capture former volunteer fire captain Robert Eric Eason, investigators once attached a GPS device to his car. At least once, he was tracked driving past an area where a fire started soon after. Eason, of Woodland, Calif., was convicted of setting 12 fires in 2006 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Steensland speculates that he might have set fires undetected for as long as 18 years.
A Dirty Little Secret
The most perplexing arsonists are surely firefighters. Nothing dents fire department morale more deeply than having one of their own start a blaze. How many firefighter arsonists are out there? That’s a particularly elusive number since arsonists’ occupations are rarely — if ever — denoted in fire incident reports and data. Basically, statistics shed no light on this whatsoever. While three national agencies compile statistics, none tracks firefighter arsonists. So, although firefighters continue to set fires — and we know they do because these mystifying cases routinely receive local news coverage — there is no good data on this hidden population.
South Carolina was ahead of the pack in recognizing the firefighter arsonist problem in 1993 when it had at least 33 fire department volunteers charged with arson. The following year, 47 more were arrested. Officials were stunned, but at least the SCFC stepped up to the plate to study a phenomenon that, even though it’s now being addressed in many states, some still would rather ignore or deny exists.
“It’s pretty safe to say that at least once a year we wind up arresting a volunteer fireman that’s been lighting fires somewhere here in the state,” Calore admitted.
But, embarrassed authorities can always make a case for keeping firefighter-started incidents quiet, arguing that publicity may trigger copycats. “It’s what I refer to as our dirty little secret,” Tom Aurnhammer, a New Mexico fire chief, told CBS news in 2003.
When the SCFC and the FBI created profiles of firefighter arsonists in the mid-1990s, the FBI concluded that their No. 1 motivator was a craving for excitement. Some firefighter arsonists are would-be heroes, starting fires so they can rush in and save the day. But often they’re simply bored thrill-seekers who, particularly in rural areas, are frustrated because there aren’t more fires to fight. Such arsonists are drawn to the work not by a desire to perform a public service but by the anticipation of excitement. So, when there’s not enough action, they don’t like it.
Steensland agreed that many are chasing thrills but sees it as “not so much the action of putting the fire out. Just running through town, red lights and siren, and letting everybody see you and getting that attention, that vanity stroked. They typically don’t want a big fire.”
In 2000, Douglas Ford, a two-year volunteer, even set fire to his own fire station, craving the excitement of seeing it in flames. “I burned it down,” he told CBS News. “I can’t say anymore than that. I’m sorry for what I did.”
Firefighter arsonists haunt us. They break a public trust. They’re often young, with perhaps just a few years in the department. But for all the attention their cases attract, they are statistically rare. With an estimated 72 percent of the United States’ 1.15 million firefighters volunteers, and more than 20,000 of the nation’s 30,200 fire departments volunteer-run, it’s hardly surprising that volunteer firefighters feature prominently in such cases. But let’s never forget that many are also heroes: Sixty-eight of the 118 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2007 were volunteers.
Since March, though, at least four Ohio firefighters have been charged with arson; at least two of them volunteers. And with at least nine of their firefighters charged with arson, Pennsylvania announced last summer that it would convene a task force to address the problem.
Screening and certification practices still vary, as do criminal background checks, and skimpy checks could be more likely in rural departments with staff and money shortages.
Since rural firefighters aren’t called to fires outside their own area, any volunteers working within a tight radius of a suspicious fire are immediately given a hard look nowadays. “That’s usually one of the first red flags that it’s a fireman,” Steensland explained, “because the fires are very tightly confined to the response area of that particular firefighter’s station.”
L.A.’s Station Fire in September 2009, in which two firefighters died, has been declared a suspected arson. Reportedly, investigators lack the necessary evidence for an arrest. But, the blaze led proponents of a national tracking system for convicted arsonists to renew their efforts. Congress is being urged to allow a vote on the Managing Arson Through Criminal History (MATCH) Act. It can’t hurt, Steensland believes. But, given how many serial arsonists operate in such limited geographical areas – their comfort zones – he warns against pinning too many hopes on a national database having a dramatic effect on solve rates.
“So how much chance is there that they will solve the Station Fire case?” he said. “We shall see. If it’s one of a series, hopefully they will be close to making the case, and this one will break the logjam. If it’s truly arson, and if it is a single-event, standalone fire, and it doesn’t have any of the aforementioned evidentiary circumstances, then I would not hold my breath.”
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