Arson: The Scorched-Earth Obsession

They call them the "devil winds." Dave Hillman woke up at 2 a.m. last Monday feeling sick. The weather reports forecast high winds, and Hillman, chief arson investigator for California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, knew devil winds had a way of stimulating arsonists. Whenever a "wind event" occurs, he knows, after 37 years as a firefighter (24 of them studying arson), that "there are always going to be nuts coming out of the woodwork."

Downed power lines, flying embers that can travel a mile in a strong wind, tossed cigarettes, sloppy workers with blowtorches—the causes of the fires that raged from north of Los Angeles to south of San Diego last week may have been varied and accidental. Southern California was dry, and the Santa Anas, the winds that blow off the desert, can whip up a careless campfire into a conflagration. But one big fire, a blaze that burned 27,600 acres and consumed 14 houses, was apparently set deliberately. And five people were caught allegedly trying to start fires that could have added to an inferno that was already hellish—destroying an area twice the size of New York City, burning down about 1,900 houses, injuring some 80 people and killing at least seven.

Why would anyone start, or fan, fires that could scorch thousands of acres, burn down whole communities and kill people? Actually, it happens all the time. Last year more than 30,000 intentionally set structure fires killed 305 people and cost three quarters of a billion dollars in property loss. Arsonists start fires for money—typically, to collect insurance—and for revenge. "Firebugs" are sometimes politically motivated—abortion clinics are favorite targets (174 arson attacks in the United States and Canada since 1977, according to the National Abortion Federation). Kids start fires for kicks or because they are angry (about half of all fires are started by juveniles). Some arsonists want to be heroes, starting fires in order to rush in and save the day. And then there are the creepy pyromaniacs, the ones who start fires for sexual release.

Authorities are convinced that the Santiago blaze, which began north of Mission Viejo in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, was intentionally set. It was ignited by two blazes erupting almost simultaneously a half mile apart, and investigators have apparently found other incriminating evidence, though they weren't saying what last week. Likewise, there are few details about the five people arrested for allegedly setting fires (fortunately, the blazes set by these "tweakers" were small and contained). Some authorities accused the press of hyping the arson reports. But Hillman was not the only state official to be jumpy about firebugs. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered a $50,000 reward—later upped to $285,000—to whoever turns in the perpetrator(s) of the Santiago fire. "We will hunt down whoever is responsible," Schwarzenegger said. "If I were one of the people who started this fire, I would not be sleeping very soundly." The governor was in "Terminator" mode because the history of arson in California and elsewhere in the country is so ghastly and unnerving—and so sure to be repeated. A study of infamous arsonists of the past two decades suggests that motivations range from the merely sad to the truly sick and sinister.

A year ago a blaze whipped up by the Santa Ana devil winds destroyed 40,000 acres across the San Jacinto Mountains west of Palm Springs. Five firefighters were killed. Police arrested Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, and charged him with murder. Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco says he will seek the death penalty. "I believe he set fires because of an irresistible impulse," Pacheco tells NEWSWEEK. "It's about power and a morbid, evil fascination. Some people feel powerful by building or achieving things, others by destroying things." Pacheco says there is testimony that Oyler told a relative "he was 'going to burn the mountain'."

Oyler's lawyer, Mark Raymond McDonald, says his client is being scapegoated. Oyler is being investigated for 23 separate fires, but McDonald says the authorities have DNA evidence for only two small fires, not the big one that killed the firefighters. Authorities found two cigarette butts with matches laid perpendicularly across them, says McDonald. Oyler's DNA was on both, he says. "He's not like one of those bizarre arsonists who set fires to watch them for sexual gratification; he doesn't fit that profile," says McDonald. "He's really just a dopey mechanic. He probably sets fires for reasons having to do with losing one of his kids in a parental-rights battle to the mother's relatives. Perhaps he was trying to get back at the person who took the kids away, by making it look like they set the fire."

Love spurned or lost has been the spark for some terrible conflagrations. In 2002, a giant wildfire charred 138,000 acres outside Denver and destroyed more than 100 homes. Investigators found the origin of the fire in some burned matches used to light a letter mailed to U.S. Forest Service worker Terry Barton. The letter was from her estranged husband. It was Barton who called in the fire. "She wanted to be some kind of hero," Douglas County Under Sheriff Tony Spurlock told CNN. "I don't think she was prepared for the magnitude of her actions—all the homes that were lost, the pets that died, the land lost." Barton pleaded guilty and is still in prison.

Some arsonists are more coldblooded. The most recent high-profile revenge burning came in 1990, when Julio Gonzalez, a Cuban immigrant who came over on the Mariel boatlift a decade earlier, set fire to the Happy Land nightclub in the Bronx, N.Y., killing 87 people. After fighting with his girlfriend, a coat-check girl at Happy Land, Gonzalez was thrown out by the bouncer. He came back, drunk, with a can of gasoline that he used to douse the only stairway to the club. Most victims were either trampled or asphyxiated. Gonzalez was convicted of 174 counts of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. The grimmest fire-for-profit story may have occurred in Chicago in 2002. An investment executive, Marc Thompson, was sentenced to 190 years in federal prison for intentionally setting fire to his home to obtain $730,000 of insurance money. He made it appear as if his 90-year-old mother had set the fire to kill herself. He took her to the basement and spread a fire accelerant on the walls before he lit the match. Aside from the abortion-clinic bombers and arsonists, the most active political firebugs are environmental terrorists. At Vail, Colo., in 1998, the Earth Liberation Front caused $12 million in damage by torching an extension to the ski resort. (ELF issued a news release taking credit.) In San Diego in 2003, ELF burned down a five-story, 206-unit condo project. A banner reading IF YOU BUILD IT, WE WILL BURN IT, THE ELFS ARE MAD was found at the crime scene. Damage was estimated at $50 million.

The twisted thoughts and actions of one legendary arsonist would make a movie—and did. John Orr was the fire captain and arson investigator for the Glendale (Calif.) Fire Department. Orr had a way of smelling fires and getting there before anyone else. "People looked up to him," recalls Tom Propst, a young fire-prevention inspector at the Glendale FD in the early '90s. Propst recounted arriving at the site of a brush fire in a canyon area near Glendale and—as always—Orr was already there. "He was shouting stuff like, 'We need to get crews above,' and giving directions. He always knew where the fire hydrants were." At the time, Propst says, "We just thought, 'Wow, this guy has such knowledge.' He was miraculously fast at finding the causes of fires. He could dig through the ashes, narrow it down and we'd be, like, 'Man, you're good'."

Investigators now believe Orr started more than 2,000 fires throughout California between 1984 and 1991. ATF fire investigator Mike Matassa puts the cost of Orr's arson in the tens of millions. In 1992, Orr was convicted of killing four people who died when a hardware store burned in Pasadena. Among the evidence used against him was a novel Orr had written called "Points of Origin," about a firefighter named Aaron who sets fires. A sample passage: "To Aaron, the smoke was beautiful, causing his heart rate to quicken and his breathing to come in shallow gasps. He was trying to control his outward appearance and look normal to anyone around him. He looked around and saw nothing, the lot was empty. He relaxed and partially stroked his erection, watching the fire." Crime novelist and former LAPD detective Joseph Wambaugh tells NEWSWEEK, "if you read it, you'll encounter more erections than at the Playboy Mansion." Wambaugh later wrote "Fire Lover: A True Story" about Orr; HBO made a movie that told his story. Wambaugh communicates with Orr, who is in prison for life. "Orr is affable and intelligent," says Wambaugh. "By no means is he psychotic."

The arsonist who sets fires for sexual gratification is rare, says Bruce Varga, an arson specialist with the Milford, Conn., Fire Department and an adjunct fire instructor at the University of New Haven. Many arsonists are merely pathetic attention seekers. "We had one volunteer fireman who organized a bunch of small forest fires about two years ago," says David West, chief of law enforcement for the South Carolina Forestry Commission. "He would have these two young boys set the fires for him in Kershaw County so he could put them out." West says the young man "wanted to be a paid firefighter. He was a good kid; he just messed up. He told me one time that he just loved helping people—it was the thrill of helping people that moved him."

In the early 1990s, Ken Cabe, the now retired fire-prevention coordinator for the commission, partnered with the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Division in Quantico, Va., to examine the phenomenon of firemen arsonists. They developed a screening test to determine which firemen applicants were at high risk of becoming firebugs. "We were arresting 40-some firemen a year, which led us to look at the problem," says Cabe. "It's the kind of thing that everyone knows about but it's embarrassing to discuss, so no one addresses it." Cabe and the FBI campaigned to get fire departments to use the test, and as potential firebugs were screened out, the numbers of firemen arrested for arson plummeted from around 40 to about three a year. "Most of these kids are not bad people, they are not out to hurt people," says Cabe. "But they just are not particularly thoughtful or mature. They are lonely and often depressed and just want to feel more important. When they get caught, the first thing they say to the arresting officer is almost always, 'Does this mean that I can't be a fireman anymore?' "

Arson is the leading cause of fires in the United States and the second leading cause of fire deaths (after fires set by smokers). Still, arson may be on the decline. The statistics compiled by FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration show a dramatic drop from 78,500 arson structure fires in 1997 to 31,000 last year. California may be an exception to this good news. As of June 2007, there were 473 inmates in the California correctional system serving time for arson, up from 436 in 1998. "It's slowly creeping up," says Terry Thornton, spokeswomen for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Kate Dargan, the California state fire marshal, blames the Santa Anas, in part. "It's hot, windy, dry, you are uncomfortable. People get irritable. There's a reason they call them the devil winds." Usually, she says, arsonists don't set the first fire when the Santa Anas blow, "but often when several fires are going, there is something particularly gratifying about setting the next fire. Attention seekers may not be standing right in front of the camera. But they feel very powerful because they put all this into play."

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