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Firestarters : The Compulsion of Wildland Arsonists and the Obsession of Those Who Chase Them

<i> Diane Swanbrow is a Los Angeles writer. </i>

EVERY FIRE SEASON IN Southern California is a potential disaster. Wildfires sweep the region every summer and fall, and in the worst years, fires dominate the national news with scenes of numbing desolation. Since 1960 more than a mllion acres have been burned and 54 lives and 2,355 homes have been lost. The most desirable neighborhoods are often hit the hardest. The 1961 Bel-Air fire destroyed 484 homes that were among the most expensive in the country. In 1977 the Sycamore Canyon fire razed 234 homes in Santa Barbara’s Riviera. The good life in Malibu is particularly vulnerable; the Kanan fire in 1978 exploded at the staggering rate of 167 acres per minute, burning homes to the ocean from its origin in the Malibu hills.

The California Department of Forestry expects the 1987 fire season to be among the worst in history. Between one-third and one-half of the record number of 10,000 “wildland” fires forecast for the state will occur in Southern California. (Firefighting agencies use the term “wildland” to describe fires that start in brush and forest.) The reasons for this grim prediction are is partially beyond anyone’s control. This year the chaparral is unusually dry. In many sections of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains the brush contains less than half the normal level of moisture, a result of temperature extremes last winter and spring combined with below-normal rainfall. To make the situation even more explosive, disease has killed much of a common shrub, the ceanothus, in recent years, leaving wide swaths of dead fuel that burns hot and fast.

But blaming nature makes little sense when officials from all major firefighting agencies agree that at least half the wildland fires here are caused by arson. These fires are often the most disastrous; arsonists tend to strike when conditions are right, using Santa Ana winds as an accelerant. The 1980 Panorama fire that destroyed 355 homes in San Bernardino and the 1985 Decker Canyon fire that again devastated Malibu are just the most notorious of many fires that were crimes, not tragic accidents. Despite the persistence and skill of investigators, the arsonists who were responsible have not been caught. What makes this so alarming is that wildland arsonists rarely stop after one fire. In the space of a few years, a single arsonist haunting the hills has been known to set 200 fires or more. As temperatures rise and humidity drops, this is not a reassuring thought. Nor is it comforting to consider how strange a crime this is or to listen to the stories investigators tell about serial arsonists.

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EVEN WITHOUT THE Smokey the Bear tie pin he sometimes wears, Doug Allen fits the image of a forest ranger. He stands 6 feet, 5 1/2 inches tall, has wavy white hair and a deep, resonant voice that sounds like a good-natured growl. For years he traveled around the state fighting fires for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which handles most of the wildland fires in the state. Once he was gone four months straight; when he got home, his wife told him their daughter had set fire to some leaves in a gutter. When asked why, the little girl said she wanted Daddy to come home and put the fire out. Shortly afterward, Allen switched from fighting fires to figuring out what started them. He worked as an arson investigator for 20 years before accepting the job of chief law enforcement officer for the department’s Southern California region last May. Before he took the job he turned down 101 written offers for promotion. Like other arson investigators, he takes pride in statistics that suggest how difficult the job is: Last year in Los Angeles County, 57% of the homicide cases were solved, compared to 8% of the arson cases. “It’s the most frustrating job in law enforcement,” he says. “But after a while, you kind of get the frustration burned out of you.”

Many factors conspire to make arson one of the toughest crimes to investigate. The primary reason is that the weapon consumes most of the evidence, or at least transforms it into something as indecipherable to the average detective as an Aramaic hieroglyphic. To establish that a fire was not an accident demands a painstaking search through sodden rubble, guided by a highly esoteric knowledge of fire behavior and burn patterns. Electronic sniffers capable of detecting minute concentrations of flammable vapors, chromatographs that can distinguish gasoline from paint thinner, and other tools take the investigator only so far in the almost metaphysical quest to determine the cause of the fire and its point of origin.

Wildland fires are harder than structure fires to investigate, say officials who have had experience with both. The sheer size of the crime scene can be overwhelming, and there are fewer burn indicators. “No walls, ceilings or shards of crazed glass to talk to you,” says Allen. “Just some burned grass.” To divine where the crime may have occurred, he starts at the fire’s periphery and literally walks in circles, slowly spiraling toward the center; he calls this “following the fire’s footprints.” As he walks, he notes the color and texture of the surface ash and checks the type, degree and location of charring on twigs and bushes, combining science with the skill of a backwoods tracker. On the side the fire hit first, branches are usually covered with deep-black char or pure-white ash, for example. Any grass that remains under rocks and pebbles is usually located on the side of the rock away from the fire’s source.

Before reaching the point of origin, the investigator has to make his way through the “area of confusion"--a term for an area as large as 50 feet in diameter that’s filled with misleading indicators. “Fire burns in a perfect circle until something influences it,” Allen explains, drawing arrows radiating from a point like the spokes of a wheel. “So your indicators make it seem like the fire’s coming from every direction.” As Allen enters the area of confusion, he gets down on his hands and knees. Following a checkerboard pattern, he examines each square foot with a magnifying glass, using every blade of grass to fashion a mental compass that will tell him what direction the blaze took.

On the wall in Allen’s office in Riverside is a photograph of a mouse electrocuted while gnawing on a power line. The mouse looks a bit surprised but amazingly intact--its fur barely singed--given its position at the epicenter of a fire that destroyed a condominium complex in Poway. What makes the photo so appealing to an arson investigator is that it erases all doubt. Too many times when Allen reaches the point of origin, he finds nothing. “Guy reaches down and sets some brush on fire with a cigarette lighter, then puts the lighter in his pocket and drives away,” he says, taking a drag on his cigarette. “That’s when you get to work establishing a negative corpus. If you can demonstrate that nothing else could have caused the fire, then you’ve established arson. And you have to eliminate every other possible cause, both natural and accidental: power lines, sparks from off-road vehicles, kids playing with matches, lightning, even spontaneous combustion.” Once this is done, the hard part starts: finding the culprit.

What makes wildland arsonists so dangerous also gives investigators their main advantage: Repeated fires provide repeated chances to catch them. Like multiple murderers, serial arsonists tend to betray themselves by their distinctive signatures. “They’re very particular about the way they set fires,” says Allen. “Once they find a device they like, they stay with it.” But because the fire often destroys the source of ignition, investigators more often depend on other, unconscious patterns their quarry follow. Using computers to analyze both the chronological and geographical distribution of fires within an area, they begin by sorting out one series of fires from another, hoping to identify certain times of the day or week a given arsonist is likely to strike. “We even check the phases of the moon,” says Allen. Despite sophisticated computerized pin maps and analyses correlating place, time and other variables, finding a pattern can take years. “We’ve got one case in San Diego County that’s been going on for 12 years now. A once-a-year arsonist,” says Allen. “Guy sets a fire once a year on the same curve of the same dead-end road within two weeks either side of the Fourth of July. It took us six years to realize there even was a pattern. What happens to him around the Fourth, I don’t know. Someday I’d love to ask him.”

Once a probable pattern is established, the focus shifts to surveillance. Video cameras mounted on trees monitor who enters and leaves fire-prone areas. Brush-fire patrols routinely gather license plate numbers, analyzing tens of thousands by computer. “You sit and wait and watch,” says Allen. “And if a fire starts, at least you’ve got a list of vehicles going in and out of the area. Then you start interviewing people about why they were there, developing a suspect list. Maybe you find one oddball who has no real reason to be there. So you focus on that person, start following him around at the times you’ve already established fit his pattern. When you get lucky, you witness him set a fire, (see him) pitch something out the car window, whatever.”

Many of the hundred or so arsonists Allen has arrested over the years fit the demographic profile developed by the FBI. The typical arsonist is a white male in his teens to early 20s; 35% are under the age of 15 and 76% are white. “The kids I’ve talked to give all kinds of reasons, or excuses, whatever you want to call them,” says Allen. “It just seemed like something to do. They wanted to watch the air tankers fly over and drop on the fire. They were mad at their teachers. They were mad at their mothers.” Many of them got the idea while drinking. Sometimes they act a bit dazed when confronted with the consequences of their acts, as if they don’t quite grasp the concept of cause and effect, so had no way of knowing that little fires can turn into big ones.

Both Allen and William Derr, chief special agent for the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Region, agree that firefighters themselves--usually volunteers--are occasionally the culprits. “Sometimes they just want to put themselves to work. Or they want to be heroes,” says Derr. But sometimes their reasons are more obscure. “Some firemen like fire,” says Derr. Firefighters are not alone here; a universal symbol of good and evil, love and hate, fire fascinates many people. Walt Whitman wrote in “Leaves of Grass”:

O the fireman’s joys!

I hear the alarm at dead of night.

I hear bells, shouts! I pass the crowd, I run!

The sight of the flames maddens me with pleasure.

ACCORDING TO THE U.S. Fire Administration, a research arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 14% of the 160,000 or so fires confirmed as arson in the country each year are the work of pyromaniacs: solitary creatures driven to set fires repeatedly for motives the people who track them don’t pretend to understand. Stories told by investigators suggest that the source of psychic ignition is sexual frustration or release, but most of these stories sound apocryphal, as though the facts have been embellished into folklore over the years. Allen has never arrested anyone he would call a pyromaniac, at least anyone who admitted deriving a sexual kick from starting a fire or watching it burn. However, he has encountered quite a few arsonists in the grip of other, equally dangerous, aberrations: Psychopaths roaming the wilderness, setting fires to settle a grudge with the world. People who hear voices, igniting blazes with religious zeal to purify a corrupt civilization. Cultists performing satanic rituals.

But the case he remembers best--almost fondly, since no one is immune to the flattery of imitation--is that of Mike, an incendiary version of Walter Mitty. “He had a scanner, a CDF uniform, a badge from the Rockville Fire Department and an insignia saying he was a line boss--the man who’s second in command on a fire,” Allen recalls. “Used to put ashes on his face afterwards, four perfect stripes down each cheek. On his way to one fire scene in San Diego County, he ran out of gas. Had the gall to call the sheriff for help. Said he was on his way to work the fire, so the sheriff filled up his tank and gave him a case of road flares. When he got to the scene, he went up to the ‘dozer operator and said: ‘Hi, how ya doin’? I’m your relief.’ But when he started knocking fences over with the blade, somebody said: ‘Wait a minute.’ That’s how we got onto him.”

Allen finally arrested Mike in Fallbrook, after watching him set what he believes was his 22nd fire. Mike was convicted of a single count of arson for which he served 120 days. He kept a scrapbook of fires he was suspected of starting in order to help extinguish. He cut out newspaper pictures showing firefighters with grateful residents of homes that had been saved, then labeled the pictures, “Mike” or “This is me.” “By the time we arrested him, he’d gone into an EMT (emergency medical technician) mode,” says Allen. “He’d taken a bunch of medical equipment from a local hospital and was running the freeways, looking for accidents. Once a year he calls me to see if he can get back his scrapbook. I’m afraid it would rekindle him. If he’s cured, why does he want it?”

PATRUSS SAYS HE HAS SET about 2,000 fires across the country for personal as well as professional reasons. The worst for which he was arrested was the 1971 Romero Canyon fire in Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County. It burned 16,100 acres and killed four men. A short man in his mid-50s, Russ lives in a camper atop a one-ton truck, with a color TV, a cockapoo and a silk-haired terrier. He’s on the road most of the time, touching down every so often at a trailer park near Hemet. After spending a little less than four years in Atascadero State Hospital for the Los Padres fire, he became the star of a series of training films for fire investigators called “An Arsonist Talks.” Sometimes he speaks at conferences held by insurance companies or fire prevention agencies.

Like a reformed alcoholic, Russ believes that talking about his addiction is part of the cure. So he was more than willing to talk about his past during an interview. “Arsonists are a lot like MDSOs (mentally disordered sex offenders),” he says. “Instead of raping people, we rape society.”

His attraction to fire began when he was a boy in Rochester, N.Y., where he lived with his mother, 18 brothers and sisters and his mother’s father--who was his father, too. Like many children who become pathological firesetters, Russ was physically abused and sexually molested. Because young children can’t attack their tormentors directly, some psychologists believe, they may set fires as a cry for help. But when Russ started setting fires at the city dump every day after school, no one came to his rescue. He grew to like the way fire looked and smelled and sounded. He liked the comfort and warmth he got from the flames. But mainly, setting fires gave him a sense of power. “See, I could build a fire and burn up anybody I wanted,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “If I was mad at my mother, I could destroy her without touching her physically. I’d pick out a box and say, ‘This is you,’ and watch the fire destroy it. And after the fire went out, the problem was solved. When I walked away, it didn’t haunt me.”

As he got older, Russ figured out that “society needed people like me.” Why not make a living doing something he already did for free? For more than a decade, he traveled around the country working as a professional arsonist, torching restaurants, warehouses, whatever the market demanded. Although he spent some time in Attica Correctional Facility in New York, he felt that arson was relatively risk-free. But after he came to Southern California to do some jobs in the mid-'60s, he had enough close calls that he decided to try another line of work. Besides, his private life was going so well that he stopped feeling the need for arson. He loved his wife and two young daughters, felt within reach of having the “perfect, normal life” he’d never known but always wanted. He got a job at Knott’s Berry Farm, working with the animals on Old Macdonald’s Farm, and began teaching Sunday School at a Baptist church near his home in Orange County.

He started the Santa Barbara County blaze after his wife left him for another man, taking with her the two children he had begun to doubt were his. The other man was his brother. “She didn’t want to be married to a cripple,” says Russ, who walks with a limp. “I felt I’d been dealt a losing hand. And somebody was gonna pay. From a very early age, my philosophy had been: ‘You piss me off, I’ll burn you out.’ ” He was driving from Santa Ana to San Jose to see his wife when the familiar pressure started building. He pulled off U.S. 101 near Goleta and drove back roads looking for the right spot--secluded and brushy, with a slope steep enough to serve as a chimney. When he found one he liked, he turned the car around, lit the fuse in a baby-food jar filled with toilet paper and gasoline, tossed it out the window and drove off slowly so he wouldn’t attract attention. He remembers doing the same thing at least two more times. “There’s still a doubt in my mind if that big fire was mine,” he says now. “Was that actually mine that killed those men? I still can’t say with complete certainty.”

Many arson investigators in Southern California know Pat Russ. If they haven’t arrested him, they’ve seen his movies. The contempt they express for him reflects their revulsion for a man authorities suspect set fire to his house while his wife and children were inside sleeping. Some of the investigators can’t get over their anger that he copped a plea of insanity and wound up doing less than four years for a fire that killed four men. When Russ was released from custody, one of the investigators who had worked on the case was so frustrated that he went back to fighting fires. Instead of poking around in the ruins, making inferences from ashes, he could have the satisfaction of saving babies from burning buildings. Still, the disgust many of them express for Russ goes beyond professional frustration and moral outrage at the way they feel his punishment mocks justice. The looks on their faces, the way they spit his name betrays the kind of disdain men reserve for those they consider unmanly. It’s a mixture of scorn and pity recurrent arsonists often evoke in men who arrest them. “They can’t relate to females,” one investigator says. “So they start going out with the flame.”

FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, forensic psychiatrists have been trying to figure out why some people set fires compulsively. In 1833, a French scientist named Marc observed that pyromania was “most likely to occur in sexually frustrated teen-age country girls” and in older men who set fires to achieve sexual satisfaction. Variations on this theme have been circulating ever since. The classic psychological study of pyromaniacs, conducted in the 1940s by Nolan Lewis and Helen Yarnell of the Coolidge Foundation, found that while many of the 1,145 pyromaniacs interviewed said that arson afforded their only relief from mounting anxiety and tension (sometimes accompanied by dizziness, palpitations and ringing in the ears), few described this relief as sexual. But many of the pyromaniacs had a history of bed-wetting extending into late adolescence.

Most psychologists now discount the significance of this correlation, pointing out that about one-fourth of all children between the ages of 4 and 12 suffer from enuresis and that the problem lasts longer in delinquents of all kinds. But other psychologists, primarily those with a psychoanalytical orientation, believe that in some cases at least, a history of persistent enuresis may create a predisposition to commit arson. “If a child realizes he is not the kind of feisty, aggressive person he would like to be and that his bed-wetting is humiliating, one method of coping with that is by setting fires,” says Alfred Coodley, a psychiatrist with the USC School of Medicine and a longtime consultant to the criminal division of Los Angeles County Superior Court. “But at the same time, how are fires put out? By somebody taking a hose and sprinkling water all over. Which is, in a sense, almost a duplication of the bed-wetting.”

It was Freud, of course, who proposed the first coherent explanation of what arson investigators call “the old hose theory.” In a 1932 essay, “The Acquisition of Power Over Fire,” he observed that the basis of the association of fire and sex, recognized in symbol and myth throughout history, is a simple fact of physiology: the dual function of the male sex organ. Before primitive man learned to make fire, Freud noted, he had to conserve it. But cave men had the habit of putting out fires with streams of urine. In doing this, Freud speculated, they engaged in a highly pleasurable, symbolic battle between penis and phallic flames. Since this battle stirred homosexual desires, the urge to extinguish fires in the company of other men had to be suppressed in order to encourage reproduction. But the somatic connection between fire and water keeps this primitive impulse alive in the male. Although most of what Freud called “instinct-ridden humanity” has renounced the thrill of starting fires, forcing other men to extinguish them, for pyromaniacs instinct is triumphant.

“I think the Freudian view is sheer nonsense,” says Kenneth Fineman, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, who developed a method for evaluating juvenile firesetters adopted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and used by fire departments throughout the country. “Most modern psychologists, including those who follow Freud, now agree that firesetting is not a urethral-erotic problem. It’s a problem with expressing aggression. If you have delinquent tendencies and you’re really assertive and someone bugs you, you confront them. You either talk to them or you punch them out. But it’s direct. Firesetting is usually very indirect. It’s a symbolic way of getting back at someone you believe has hurt you.” Other opponents of the Freudian view observe that the incidence of sexual problems far exceeds the incidence of arson. “If sexual conflict leads to arson,” one psychologist quipped, “not a city in the world would be standing.”

But Chris Hatcher, a clinical psychology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-author of “The Psychology of Child Firesetting: Detection and Intervention,” is not so sure. “The reason Freudian theory has dominated the controversy about what goes on in the mind of the pyromaniac is because every arson investigator and every psychologist who works with compulsive firesetters has come across at least one case in which setting fires is closely tied to sexual conflict or arousal. It’s almost as if Freud himself had written the case history.”

The example that leaps to Hatcher’s mind--a well-known case among mental-health experts who work with young firesetters--involves a 5-year-old boy who set more than 20 serious fires and whose family moved repeatedly to escape from angry neighbors and worried fire marshals. Hatcher first examined him in the psychiatric ward of a county hospital on the evening he was finally caught. “He was unusual in the degree of his attraction to fire,” Hatcher recalls. “I didn’t have to ask him to talk about it; it’s all he wanted to talk about. When someone struck a match to light a cigarette, he would gravitate to it.” Hatcher worked with the boy and his family for months, trying to treat his terrible affliction. Nothing he learned later led him to change the diagnosis he made the next morning about the cause of the boy’s behavior. When the boy’s mother walked into the hospital room, she was wearing a sweat shirt emblazoned with a picture of the devil. Under the picture was an old refrain. Come on, baby, light my fire.


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