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COLUMN ONE : Why Do They Start the Fires? : Arsonists in the wilds plan in advance and operate alone, driven by internal rage, experts say.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the heart of a forest or the deep reaches of an urban canyon, an arson unfolds with simplicity and speed.

Arsonists strike quickly, using the most elemental of devices--a pack of matches, a rock, a plastic butane lighter, a disposable pen, a cigarette stub. They pick their spot and moment, selecting dry, vulnerable targets and waiting for the hot winds to blow. They stay just long enough to see the first hint of flame, then disappear before the fire begins its destructive path.

Leaving behind only blackened shreds of evidence, these arsonists are a formidable quarry; there are far more of these sorts of fires than convictions. When arsonists are caught, the mystery turns to the more perplexing question of motive.

Fire investigators and forensic psychologists have expressed a multitude of theories to explain the compulsions that drive arsonists to set fires like those that burned Wednesday and Thursday in Santa Barbara, the Glendale Hills and Carbon Canyon in Orange County.

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What the experts do agree upon are some traits common to this breed of fire-starter, traits that subtly set them apart from urban arsonists who burn for pay or on impulse: They plan in advance and operate alone; they are driven by internal rage, and are unconcerned by the possibility that the fires they set may destroy thousands of acres of wooded lands, hundreds of homes and, ultimately, human lives. And those who set one wildfire often return to set another. And another.

“It’s like somebody who overeats,” said Loren Poore, chief of fire prevention and law enforcement with the California Department of Forestry. “Seldom will you find these people satisfied with just setting one fire.”

Wildfires are rarely impulsive crimes, law enforcement officials, psychologists and other experts say. In many cases that they have prosecuted, authorities have found that suspects often select remote wooded locations where they assume they could not be seen. Often, the suspects drive or walk through the area several times before they are confident in leaving behind their incendiary devices.

“A successful serial arsonist will scout out ahead of time,” said Timothy G. Huff, a crime analyst with the FBI Academy’s behavioral science unit in Quantico, Va.

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And some arsonists have been known to return to the site of earlier wildfires after the charred fields are replaced by thriving new vegetation. “He’s learned that it’s a good place to start a fire,” Huff said.

Authorities have seen no evidence to suggest that arsonists start wildfires with the hope that they will spread to neighborhoods, burning down homes and threatening life. Instead, arsonists may be aware that their fires have devastating potential, but simply do not care about the results, psychiatrists and other experts say.

“The person who sets a fire in the brush or wild lands knows with a degree of certainty that people will be harmed,” said forensic psychiatrist Kenneth R. Fineman, a UC Irvine professor who has interviewed hundreds of arsonists over the last 15 years.

“Especially during this worst heat wave in our history,” he added in reference to triple-digit temperatures across the region when the three fires were started.

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The last major spate of arson brush fires occurred in late June and early July of 1985. In the last week of June, arsonists set a series of blazes in Ventura County that burned for five days into a single major fire, spreading from Ojai toward the Santa Barbara County line, scorching more than 60,000 acres, gutting 12 homes and requiring 2,700 firefighters--some who flew in from as far away as Arkansas--before it was extinguished.

Then, on July 2, a fire was deliberately set in dry brush on a hillside in the Baldwin Hills section of southern Los Angeles, setting off a fast-moving blaze that roared through a residential section, killing three residents and destroying or damaging 66 homes. Despite repeated appeals and a large reward, the arsonist was never found.

Despite a general recognition that the compulsions that drive the arsonist need to be corrected, there are differences among experts over the amounts of imprisonment and psychiatric help that is required.

The typical sentence for those convicted of wild-lands arson is about three years, said Fred Strayhorn, chief investigator for the state fire marshal’s arson and bomb division. And law enforcement authorities tend to believe that incarceration is the appropriate course.

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While most of those who are convicted receive some form of psychiatric treatment, Poore and other psychologists and even some law enforcement officials acknowledge that many “get little help.”

“There are plenty of repeat offenders and I think part of the reason is that these people don’t get the appropriate treatment,” Fineman said.

Most of the 80 arsonists prosecuted last year by the Forestry Department were cited for only one or two offenses. But many were linked to dozens of other fires, Poore said. In some cases, as many as 200 fires were eventually found to have been committed by solitary arsonists.

“They may not admit to every fire they start, but there’s always some tie--either it’s the device they use, the areas where they start the fires--it’s always something,” Poore said.

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Soon after state arson investigators arrested a Northern California small businessman for setting a fire in the Tahoe Basin five years ago, they were able to link him to 32 fires in national parks throughout the region. It seemed that the man, who apparently nursed a grudge against the U.S. Forest Service, had been setting fires as he jogged along hiking trails, flicking matches as he ran.

“It was the way he dropped the matches that did him in,” said John DeHaan, a criminalist with the California Department of Justice who worked on the case. “How many joggers do you know who carry matches with them?”

Law enforcement authorities are often reluctant to describe in detail the kinds of devices used by arsonists, fearing that others will learn from those descriptions. But officials do acknowledge that wildfire arsonists rarely have to use the kinds of fuels and accelerants used by those who try to burn down buildings in cities and towns--largely because dry grasses and chaparral provide instant kindling for forest fires.

Instead, wildfire arsonists rely on the simplest of devices. Some are matchbooks wrapped around cigarettes inside a thicket of chaparral. Others are time-delayed devices like the butane lighters, propped open by pens, that were used to start the fire that burned down more than 40 homes in Glendale on Wednesday, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage.

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“You can do a heck of a lot of damage with matches and lighters and get out of there before anyone knows it,” DeHaan said.

Authorities tread with less certainty, however, when they try to establish arsonists’ motives. Decades ago, behavioral scientists often linked the desire to start fires with underlying sexual tensions--a motive that has been largely debunked as a single cause.

Dr. John M.W. Bradford, professor of psychiatry with the University of Ottawa, said that in several recent forensic studies of arsonists, no more than 4% appear to have sexual motivations for the fires they set.

Instead of relying on a single motive, most psychologists now offer a spectrum of motives for why arsonists burn. “A specific profile of an arsonist? There is none,” said Bruce H. Gross, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at USC.

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Some are bent on revenge. Some crave the private knowledge that they can cause great chaos. And some, like the transient who was arrested for allegedly starting a fire that burned through thousands of acres in Carbon Canyon, destroying several homes, offer only primal anger.

“I was upset and angry, depressed,” Peter Reyes told a Times reporter Thursday while in custody in the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana.

Still others find fascination in the haunting images and sensations that accompany wildfires--the sight of torrents of flame washing over a forest, the sound of helicopters rumbling overhead to drop chemical retardants, the acrid odor of soot that lingers weeks after a fire has spent itself.

“There’s a great sensory intoxication from looking at a fire and the smoke and chaos it causes,” Fineman said. “Sad to say, it just makes them feel good.”

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Arsonists often remain nearby after they have set their fires to observe their handiwork, experts say. Usually, they find a place far enough from the chaos, but close enough to get a spectacular view of the destruction they have caused.

“If we get a rash of fires in the same area,” said the Forestry Department’s Poore, “we begin looking for familiar faces.”

When they find them, arson investigators have sometimes been known to follow suspects, hoping to catch them in the act. In 1987, U.S. Forest Service and state Forestry Department arson investigators began trailing a suspect after a witness observed his pickup truck parked near a fire scene just moments before the fire started.

Soon afterward, the agents caught Jim Lonczak, a serial arsonist, in the act of starting a fire. Lonczak, 44, was charged with attempted arson and eventually linked to 26 fires started in the San Bernardino National Forest and surrounding state lands. Convicted on four counts of arson, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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During a three-hour interview with U.S. Forest Service Agent Ron Huxman at Terminal Island, Lonczak told of a lifelong career of arson that started when he was 16.

“He decided to start lighting fires until he got caught so we could put him away,” Huxman said.

The last fire he started was a blaze that seared the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains above Rancho Cucamonga, destroying two homes. His subsequent capture seemed to bring Lonczak great relief.

“When we picked him up, he laid his head back on the seat of the patrol car,” Huxman said.

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And then he fell asleep.

Times staff writer Terry Pristin contributed to this report.


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