In California, authorities have arrested Harry Burkhart who is accused of starting over 50 fires in Los Angeles. This might be a record for arsonists! See article in the Star Tribune: http://www.startribune.com/nation/136632808.html
Why do people start fires?
In the research for a new book that I’m working on, I’ve studied the odd crime of arson. Unlike most other crimes, arson is one of the easiest to commit and one of the toughest for law enforcement to solve. Why?
1. A rolled up newspaper, some flammable material, and a match are about all the perpetrator needs. To help the ignition, you can always add some gas or kerosene.
2. Most often, fires are started at night in vacant buildings. Even with security cameras, it’s tough to catch someone or identify them. Interestingly, in the fires in L.A. Harry Burkhart was identified by a security camera when his distinctive pony tail, body shape, and manner of walking were spotted.
3. The best advantage for the arsonist is that most or all of the evidence of the crime burns up in the fire, preventing investigators from obtaining clues about the source of the fire or who may have started it.
So what can a fire investigator do? Today, most large city fire departments team up with the police to investigate fires. They have these goals:
1. They try to determine where the fire started. They do this by carefully interviewing any witnesses to see if they can remember where they first saw the fire. Investigators also look at burn patterns in the structure. The source of the fire often, but not always, burns more severely. Fire rises and seeks the path of least resistance as it grows. This can leave V-patterns that radiate out from the source. By tracing to where the “V points,” investigators can determine the source of the fire and where it started.
2. Next, investigators try to figure out how the fire started. Hopefully, the “igniter” that initially started the fire hasn’t completely burned up. It could be accidental: an electric short, flammable material like cooking oil spilling on a hot grill, lightening, someone tossing a lit cigarette, without thinking, into flammable material, etc. Contrary to accidents, there are arsonists who intentionally set up situatinos to start fires. One of the simplest igniters is a burning cigarette with matches rubber-bindered around it. The arsonist can drop the smoldering cigarette into flammable material and when the cigarette burns down far enough, the matches flare-up, creating a big flame to ignite the flammable material surrounding the cigarette. This also has the advantage of giving the arsonist time to get away from the crime scene before the fire breaks out.
If the investigators can figure out how the fire started, it leads them to decide if it was an accident or a case of arson.
In the next post, I’ll explore what fire investigators do to catch arsonists. Also, let’s look at what kind of person is a serial arsonist?