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Arson: The Motivation And Fire Investigation


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After nearly three weeks of fighting the Waldo Canyon Fire, officials say the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history has been fully contained. Even as it burned, FBI investigators began to look for clues on how it started.

The cause is not known yet, but arson has not been ruled out. Across the state in Teller County, the search for a serial arsonist continues. So how do fire investigators find out what happened? What motivates arsonists, and how is a forest fire different from a warehouse or a car or a church?

If you're involved in fire investigations, what's the most important thing you've learned about arson? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. Got o npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, finding allies on the other side of the climate change debate, but first Brad Garrett joins us here in Studio 3A. He's a retired FBI agent, now runs his own private investigation firm, and it's good to have you with us today.

BRAD GARRETT: Thank you.

CONAN: And when you're looking into a fire, where do you start?

GARRETT: Well, you try to start with the source, in other words the place the burn began. And much like any other investigation - and in particular in arson cases because they disappear so quickly, in other words the fire is eating away at your evidence, and then unfortunately, the firefighters destroy a lot of your evidence - it's to get into the scene as soon as possible to determine exactly maybe if it was arson or what was the source of the fire, and where did it start.

CONAN: And is that more difficult in a building or in a forest?

GARRETT: I think it's a little more difficult in a forest, although it's reasonably easy to sort of determine where it started. Now, why it started or how it started is something - is a different color. But I think the short answer is maybe a little harder but not impossible.

CONAN: What tells you, for example, where a forest fire started? What are the clues you look for?

GARRETT: Well, you're looking for the most intense burn area to start. In other words, if you have an aerial view of a fire, it obviously started at a particular location, and typically those fires are reported fairly early. I mean, it may have been burning for an hour or two. So the investigators, the initial firefighters on the scene sort of know where to go to start a fire line.

CONAN: And so you have an idea, but clearly the wind is blowing the fire around. There's so many environmental factors.

GARRETT: Oh you're exactly right. And one of the big problems, obviously, in investigating an outdoor fire is that it will go on maybe for days or in some cases weeks, as you just talked about. So the real question is as it's going on, as it's eating away at more forest and more acreage, how can you really figure out - and you need to really go back to where you believe the origin was, and just like any other investigation, you start to peel that back.

One of the keys in arson investigation is the first responders because the first people on the scene see it before anybody has touched it. Does anything not look right? Is there accelerant that they can smell? What is the color of the smoke?

For example, gasoline that burns sort of yellow but the smoke is black. Maybe that was used in - those types of things. What did the initial first responders seen at the scene? Did they see somebody standing around? Did they see a car drive away? Are there logical witnesses that may have seen something prior to the fire starting?

CONAN: I think there are also probably things you can start ruling out. Was there a thunderstorm in the area? Were there power lines down? Those kinds...

GARRETT: Of course because when you walk up to it, unless it's obvious, there's a big propane tank laying in the middle of the forest, you're going to have to whittle away. Of course you're going to maybe go there with initial weather reports. Maybe there was a lightning strike the night before that could have logically started it.

But once you get to that general origin, figuring out whether it's arson or not is - I'm not saying you can always do that, but many times you can do that.


GARRETT: Based on a number of things that I've already said, what they will do is they will collect at the original site, or close to the original site, for example embers of wood. They will try to collect samples so they can go back to the lab, and they vacuum-seal all of this stuff, take it back to the lab to see if they can pull an accelerant off of it. There's a separation chromatography system, where they can pull it up and check the vapors and determine possibly what the accelerant was.

Also the way the fire burns can sometimes tell them, maybe a little less so in a forest but clearly in a house or a structure. The way the fire jumps around will tell them do they have more than one spot. You've probably heard the term pour patterns, where people pour at various locations, those light up a different way. And when the initial firefighters get to the scene, they can tell the arson investigator look, we think you might have three or four different hotspots at this location. You will then go to those.

You will look - if it's in a house, for example, you would look underneath the carpeting if you think that was a spill. It may have been splashed on the wall. It will burn down a certain way. It'll flow a certain way under the carpet, again, telltale signs of possible arson.

CONAN: And I've read that even when you do detect arson, these are very difficult crimes to solve.

GARRETT: They are because first of all, you have to figure out who did it, for starters. Now, you can go through the list of the motivators of why people set fires, from revenge to insurance fraud to covering up a crime. A lot of the stuff I work, the violent crime stuff in D.C., arson became parts of it because they burned cars up, they burned houses up to cover up evidence, whether it be biological evidence or evidence to a crime.

CONAN: Well, let's find out more about that. Joining us now is N.G. Berrill, who is a forensic psychologist with the director of the psychiatric consulting firm and - in New York called New York Forensics. He's on the phone with us from his office there. Nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: And once you get to those profiles of why do arsonists do it, is there a typical profile?

BERRILL: Well, you know, there is in a sense, but, you know, you want to also rule out the fact that perhaps someone was hired to do that type of job, you know, revenge or, as was said already, insurance motive. So someone who does it for monetary gain is not going to fit a typical profile. They don't really care so much about fire, they're just doing this, you know, to accomplish a job.

But there is a profile, a psychological profile of people who enjoy or compulsively are drawn to setting fires in order to see something burn or just enjoy watching smoke and flames and fire. And typically we're talking about someone who's, developmentally speaking, extremely immature.

It's kind of a primitive way of acting out a host of issues, one of which is obviously rage. So a lot of times you interview these guys, and they have an ax to grind, they have some issue that they have not accomplished in terms of trying to solve from their earlier lives, and they find fire as a way of really exercising a certain amount of power.

They enjoy the pageantry of setting the fire and perhaps even watching people, such as, you know, firemen and police arrive at a scene and the commotion and the noise and the, you know, the bells and whistles that accompany all this are really quite exciting. And in a perverse way empowering the individual who really is thrilled by what they're doing.

CONAN: And would there be a difference, then, for somebody who sets a fire in a forest, presumably the insurance motive is reduced?

BERRILL: It is reduced, and, you know, I would tend to think that most of those fires are started by accident. I'm not suggesting that one couldn't start it on purpose for whatever reason, but I don't think you're going to get the same type of excitement and drama and theater that you get in an urban or suburban setting.

But I'm sure some of the same core elements may well be the same if someone consciously and willfully sets a fire, you know, in a rural area or in a forest just because they want to watch just this tremendous blaze erupt. But I tend to think because, you know, people are camping, and there are lots of reasons why people might be in the forest and start fires for legitimate reasons that do get out of control. People are drinking, perhaps, you know, it wasn't their intention to start this terrible fire, but nonetheless it gets started.

CONAN: Brad Garrett, how do you tell the difference between an accident or arson in that case?

GARRETT: Well, a couple different ways. One is can you actually, as I mentioned earlier, determine if there's some sort of accelerant or obvious foul play, so to speak, at a particular scene? To go back to the forest scenario, I would agree with him that it's a greater likelihood that it's more of an accident than maybe it's actually set, although there have been, and there are a number of - there's one in Colorado, I think it's presently under investigation.

CONAN: A serial arsonist in western Colorado, yeah.

GARRETT: Exactly. So I think one of the plusses, if you're a guy who likes to set fires, and it's to a forest, is you get to watch it for a lot of days or weeks. It isn't like the house or building fire or car fire that in a few hours it's gone. So you can sort of continue to get whatever high you're getting off of it for a long time.

CONAN: And I wanted - by the way, if you are involved in fire investigation, give us a call. What's the most important thing you've ever learned about arson? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And N.G. Berrill, as we look at this case, you mentioned developmentally challenged people. I've also read that maybe those are just the ones who get caught.

BERRILL: Yeah, well, when I say developmentally challenged, I didn't mean intellectually. What I was suggesting is that emotionally, they're fairly primitive. In other words, these are people who have not developed sufficiently to be able to express issues of conflict, rage, feelings of powerlessness in a way that's productive and helpful to them so that they rely on this rather perverse ritual of starting fires as a way of kind of puffing themselves up, feeling - it gives them a sense of excitement, power, mastery over the environment.

And really, you know, I mean there is, in a weird kind of way, if you're setting the fire, you have an accelerant, and you get a warehouse burning, you know, it's quite a scene that unfolds. So a person who is grossly inadequate, who really has very little say in his life, calls very few shots, can watch this with some pleasure, and, you know, the more malevolent and the more psychopathic I guess, you know, the more frightening these people are.

CONAN: Even as the Waldo Canyon Fire burned, there were rumors, and I think they were no more than rumors, but concerns that it was an arson fire, but we don't know. The investigation is continuing there. As mentioned, there is an investigation underway as authorities in another part of the state try to identify a serial arsonist who set several forest fires.

We want to get inside the mind of an arsonist today and talk about how fire investigations proceed. If you've been involved in these investigations, call and tell us the most important thing that you've learned about arson, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about fire investigations, where they start, what they look for and the many reasons people give for starting those fires. If you're involved in fire investigation, what's the most important thing you've learned about arson? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Brad Garrett, who has served more than two decades with the FBI, now runs his own private investigation firm and serves and crime and terrorism consultant for ABC News. Also with us is N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist and director of New York Forensics, a psychiatric consulting firm in New York. And let's see if we can get a caller in on the line. We'll start with Matthew(ph), Matthew calling from Salt Lake City.

MATTHEW: Thank you, hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Matthew.

MATTHEW: Great, well, I was a wild land firefighter through college, and one thing that I found out, there was a grandmother who ended up being an arsonist. She was the grandmother of another firefighter and wanted to make sure that her grandson got enough overtime to get money for whatever it is that he needed to do.

CONAN: And so she set a fire?

MATTHEW: She set a fire, several of them actually, and there was actually a couple - another firefighter that got caught setting fires, essentially doing the same thing so that he would have enough overtime to - who knows what.

CONAN: And those are obviously unusual cases. I hope no one was hurt in any of those fires.

MATTHEW: Not that I'm aware of, but, you know, I think just recently here in Utah, there was a firefighter that was arrested for doing the exact same thing.

CONAN: There's a couple of points in there, but thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it. And one of them is, N.G. Berrill, a grandmother, that doesn't seem to fit the profile.

BERRILL: Yeah, but, you know, as was pointed out, the reason for setting the fire was instrumental. In other words, this is not someone who is fixated by fire or is sexually aroused by fire or anything like that. And in essence, her reason for setting the fire was for financial gain. So, you know, if - I don't know if there would be a good analogy, but if, you know, her grandson worked at the zoo, and she let a lion out of the cage, it would be the same kind of thing. You know, overtime is overtime. So that's a financial motivation.

CONAN: And Brad Garrett, a forest firefighter starting a fire.

GARRETT: Oh absolutely, or an arson investigator. I think one of the more famous cases, in fact Joseph Wambaugh wrote a book called "Fire Lover," is about Captain John Orr. From '84 to '91, he was a captain with the Glendale Police Department in California. They think he set over 2,000 fires, from outdoor fires to indoor fires to cars.

And he would actually set fires, and in one of them, there was a fatality because it was like a Lowe's home lumber-type place, and it killed at least one child. And it was not ruled arson. And he in fact went back and argued that it was arson. And so they eventually got enough evidence to put it together. But he would show up obviously at every scene because he wanted to work all these fires that he had set.

CONAN: Wow, I assume that's been made into a movie?

GARRETT: I don't know about a movie but certainly into a book.

CONAN: OK, and as you look at - that must be almost impossible to figure out.

GARRETT: Well, it took a long time. One of the ways they got onto him was that he used the same type of accelerant to start the fire, and he also used the same, like a set of matches with a rubber band wrapped around it, and they eventually were able, because of things he started to say...

The problem with people like that, that are sort of psychologically driven, and the doctor can jump in on this, to set these fires is then they get too involved. And when you get too involved, you then make mistakes. And he started to make several, and the other arson investigators said look, this guy knows too much, he's responding too much. And so they started a surveillance on him and eventually caught him setting fires.

CONAN: Well, let's turn to N.G. Merrill(ph), then - Berrill, then, excuse me, and the - one would think those psychologically motivated would tend to do this alone so they don't have accomplices to rat them out.

BERRILL: Well, that's usually the case. This is a private act that reflects tremendous pleasure. It's really quite self-indulgent and yet compulsive. So in essence, you're not going to really choose someone to do this with you unless you're a couple of kids. I mean, that's where I've seen people working together. It isn't adults so much who are getting pleasure from it, but it's boys, adolescent boys, who just like playing with fire, and of course things get out of control.

I mean, the other dimension, too, that I've run across with firefighters is that it's not so much that they're doing this for overtime, but there's a desire to be a hero. It's sort of analogous to the physician sort of providing too much medicine or a nurse too much medicine to a patient then rescuing them.

You know, they enjoy that drama, as well, you know, the idea that life is somehow so mundane that they can revel in becoming heroes. So again, they are first on the scene because they set the fire, and they know precisely what the deal is because they're the architect of this crime. So the motivation there is yet slightly different.

It's not so much that they revel in the fire and that it excites them so, but they really want to be - they want the accolades and the attention that the community can give when, you know, you're a hero. A lot of firefighters are certainly heroes, tremendous heroes, and they just love it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tom(ph), and Tom is on the line with us from Tucson. Tom, are you there? Tom, are you on the air?

TOM: I think so.

CONAN: OK, go ahead, sorry, I pushed the wrong button again.

TOM: It's OK. Hi Neal, thanks.

CONAN: Sure.

TOM: Good show today, really enjoy it.

CONAN: Thank you.

TOM: Say, I'd just like to make a comment, and I'll take any commentary off the air here. I'm in Tucson, Arizona, and I believe it was 2004, maybe 2005, there was a very damaging wild land fire up in the White Mountains, it was called the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, and it was two separate fires that later combined, making one gigantic wild land blaze.

First, I believe the Rodeo fire was set by a government employee, it was out of distress: She received a very distressful letter and burned it, I believe, and the fire quickly started and became out of control. And the second one, the Chediski, was started by a firefighter who perhaps - it was definitely a financial motive, but anyway, it was to have some work on the fire.

So, you know, these things can start, as I say, through distress, financial motivation. They can be vengeful. So there's all types of ways they can begin, which would basically say that in order to alleviate that would be very difficult because, you know, they're individually started in remote areas.

Anyway, thank you for the time, and I'll take the comment off the air if there is one.

CONAN: Sure, thanks very much. N.G. Berrill, upset, people who are very upset. I think there was another case of a forest ranger dumped by her boyfriend who burned the dear-Jane letter, and that started the fire.

BERRILL: Right, in cases like that, I would describe that as inadvertent. You know, nonetheless a fire ensues, but this is not the intent or the motive of the person. You know, they're burning a letter. They're so upset, and they don't really pay attention to the details, and they toss it in a bin, and it goes up in smoke or whatever. But the point is they're not enjoying the fire, and their goal isn't again to revel in the pageantry of all the, you know, law enforcement and firefighters coming out. These are just unfortunate byproducts of, you know, someone who's not paying attention very carefully, and, you know, there are flames involved.

So it just sort of drives home the point that a lot of times, some terrible things can occur when people are not paying attention, playing purposely, consciously with fire or not.

CONAN: Brad Garrett, we've been, because of this situation in Colorado and other states where wild land fires are burning, talking a lot about outdoor fires. Indoor fires, is the science advancing? I know there was a case in Texas where arson investigators first believed that it was a case of arson, and then it was found not to be later.

GARRETT: Yes, that's exactly right. There was a case in Texas several years ago where a gentleman by the last name of Willingham was convicted of killing his two children that burned up in the house and was sentenced to death, was on death row. The defense hired a bunch of experts, science experts, forensic experts that went back and totally disproved that it was arson, that it was a faulty heater.

And things like burn patterns and things that the original arson investigators believed was intentional, pours around the house, ended up not being that. And unfortunately, Governor Perry didn't buy it and allowed him to be executed. So I use that as an example.

There are cases. It's - to a certain extent, it's an inexact science because things that may appear on the surface one way end up being tested in a lab a different way.

CONAN: So it can be very deceptive.

GARRETT: It can be very deceptive.

CONAN: And again, you're dealing with the fundamental problem of the fire burning up a lot of the evidence, and then as you say, particularly in a structure fire, the firefighters destroying the rest of it.

GARRETT: Yeah. But one of the keys, Neal, is to get beyond maybe the forensics of what happened. Clearly, that is important. But understanding the alleged perpetrator what would have been his motivation to burn up the house, why did he - for example, did Willingham even want to kill his kids. Those kind of things and all of the conversations that went around him and the people around him end up, to me, being just as important maybe as the forensics as to did he do it or did he not.

CONAN: So detective work is just as important?

GARRETT: Detective work - arson investigation is detective work with the - a little bit of a different forensic hook.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. This is John(ph), and John is with us from Dutch John in Utah.

JOHN: Yes. Good morning, Neal.


JOHN: Neal, I'd like to point out there are significant differences between a structure fire arson investigation and wild land arson investigation. For instance, in wild land, the perpetrator seldom uses an accelerant - don't really need one because you have plenty of readily available fuel. Also, a wild land arsonist very typically will use a delay device to give him time to get out of the area. As far as point of origin search, that's one of the keys in wild land investigation.

By analyzing char patterns on rocks, fence posts, tree trunks, you can actually trace the point of origin of the fire back to where it started. And finally, when we're doing arson investigation for wild land, we look for patterns. I had a case one time where I went back over several years, and I found that every third Tuesday we had a set and eventually tracked it back to the perpetrator and it tied back to when he got his paycheck. And then he would get drunk, and then he would set a fire. And this went on for several years before we're able to nail him down.

CONAN: I've not heard that expression before, a set, somebody set a fire.

JOHN: Yes.

CONAN: And - so you finally found that person. How did you find him?

JOHN: We equipped all our response vehicles with tape recorders, and we did a time-distance study on every car that we passed responding into the area, and we tied it back. And we also recorded license plates, and we were able to tie it back to him that way. Then we were able to find the tire tracks that he left in the dirt and make a cast of that and match it to a tire on his vehicle.

CONAN: So a combination of good detective slogging work and some forensics too.

JOHN: Yes. And as the previous caller pointed out, one of the first places we looked is within our own ranks be it structural or wild land because we have a problem there occasionally with wild land or a structure firefighter that sets it for the action to be a hero, so to speak, or sometimes to tap into the overtime.

CONAN: And did you ever discover someone within your own ranks?

JOHN: Oh, yeah. Yup. I sure did.

CONAN: And what kind of fires was he setting?

JOHN: He was setting brush fires, and he was a seasonal employee. And he set them just for the excitement of fighting the fire. And in his presentence - during the presentence period, he asked me if he - after he served his time in prison, if he could back and work for us as a firefighter again. I told him I didn't think so.


CONAN: I suspect not. Thank you very much for the information. It's very helpful.

JOHN: You bet. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks, John. So let's talk with - we're talking with N.G. Berrill, who's a forensic psychologist, director of New York Forensics, a psychiatric consulting firm in New York. Also with us Brad Garrett, a retired FBI agent and now an ABC News crime and terrorism consultant, who runs his own private investigation firm. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I wanted to go back to you, N.G. Berrill. As you look, how much do we actually know about - since relatively few of these guys seem to get caught, do you think that we have a pretty good profile?

BERRILL: Well, in some respects, I mean, no profile is airtight. I mean, the one thing you learn when doing - working in forensic psychology, at least, is that there are types, but each situation necessitates taking a careful look at the person involved. And, you know, typically, what I've been able to do when I've talked to people who've set fires or have been arrested for that, is, you know, to discern whether there are commonalities, but moreover, it's always interesting to hear what it is they have to say about themselves and why they would be setting fires.

So, you know, there are some general aspects to who these people are. As I said, highly - emotionally immature, impulsive, powerlessness, shortsighted, you know, looking for the immediate thrill, not understanding necessarily that what they're involved in has consequences, terrible consequences for people who might be hurt seriously or killed in the fire. But you'd be amazed how many adolescents, guys in their 20s I've seen who have set fires, and you don't really think about those things.

They enjoy the, you know, as I said earlier, the pageantry of setting a fire, watching it expand, they get a really kick out of it, makes them feel great. And then, you know, if they stick around, some of them to watch what happens afterwards, there are some real pleasure in that. I've seen several different scenarios, but those are some of the common threads, at least.

CONAN: Here's an email from Gretchen(ph). My family and I were in Redmond, Washington, last Thanksgiving and went to a local park and playground. We went to wash our hands in a public restroom and noticed it was filled with smoke. Once the firefighters responded, two adolescent boys came over, asked what happened and then played on the playground before walking away. They seemed suspicious, so we alerted the chief. The boys were caught and confessed, but what amazed us is why on Earth they came back. Had they not come back to see the mess, they never would have been caught. But, N.G. Berrill, as you were just saying, that's why they set it in the first place.

BERRILL: Well, yeah, I mean, you know, it's - if you walk away after you set the fire and don't get to watch what happens afterwards, you know, that's only half the thrills, I guess. So for these kids, for example, they get to enjoy, I guess, the fruits of their labor. They find it exciting to watch the commotion. They don't really think about how it's potentially going to hurt or kill someone, and they want to see it. That's part of the pleasure.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.


CONAN: N.G. Berrill, forensic psychologist, director of the New York Forensics, he joined us by phone from his office there. And our thanks as well to Brad Garrett, a retired FBI agent, who now runs his own private investigation firm. Thanks very much, Brad.

GARRETT: You're welcome.

CONAN: Coming up, bridging the gap between climate science and climate skeptics. How we might find a middle ground on climate change? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.