ESRC Fire starting Bid Background

The relationship between malicious fire-setting as an act of youthful delinquency and its later presentation as an adult psychiatric condition is not that well understood.  In building a theory of the depth psychology of malicious fire starting, we need to consider fire fascination at a psychosocial level; how fires are located in myths and in popular culture, or as a cultural artefact in social rituals?  From this process of theory building we can begin to review implications for practice in relation to strategies for prevention and treatment.  This series of seminars is of particular interest to those working in the fire services, working with juveniles or with offenders.

Preliminary questions addressed by the seminar series: 

What object of conflagration, schools, cars, buildings?  

What are the gender differentials and how can these be cast in psychological, biological and sociological terms?

What are the differences between fire-setting as an individual or group activity - what do case histories tell us?

How we understand the discrete influence of media; films, television and games?

Fire as a weapon of terror.       

How do we understand the organisational responses to malicious fire-setting?

In 1999 the financial cost of arson in England and Wales was £2.1 billion.  The cost to life has also been considerable; in an average week, in England & Wales, arson leads to 55 injuries and one death (, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2003).  In non-financial terms, figures from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2003) state that since the early 1990s, arson has led to 32,000 injuries and 1,200 deaths, and that  The Arson Control Forum (ACF) has been established as a section within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM).  Since 2000, 51 intervention pilot projects have been launched around the UK.  Their remit is to reduce the number of fire setting incidents by 2010 by 30% set against the baseline figures for 2000/2001.  £13.3 million has been put aside for the ACF projects to fund multi-agency collaborations focused mainly on fire and rescue services, police and social services and the key stakeholder groups in local communities like schools and youth services.  These collaborations have links with local Crime & Disorder Reduction Partnerships(CDRP) and guidance has coalesced around programmes orientated towards juvenile delinquency intervention (  

The problem of malicious fire-setting, as far as ACF policy is concerned, is viewed in the context of a range of inter-relating social problems.  The challenge of combating social exclusion (a thread of policy that emerged from the ODPM in 2004) is relevant here.  Although there are regional variations in fire-setting throughout England Scotland and Wales some general social patterns in prevalence form the underpinning to the direction of policy and intervention.  For instance in areas where there has been a collapse of industry the increase in fire-setting in derelict buildings is proportional.  And high numbers of disaffected youths, where the incidence of vandalism and car-theft are higher, increases the likelihood of anti-social fire-setting. 

Having said this, strategic social intervention has seemingly been delivered with good effect in some regions already, for instance there has been a reduction in the number of fire-setting incidents in Toxteth & Merseyside City Centre (-41%) and likewise in Northumberland where deliberate fires in derelict buildings have been substantially reduced (-60%) (

Though there appears to be notable progress in terms of social policy and intervention in youth, crime and delinquency which has been generated by a developing body of research, there is a relative dearth of theory derived from more psychiatrically informed work with adults (Palmer et al, 2003).  Indeed, Ritchie and Huff (1999), in reviewing 283 cases of arson concluded that 90% of the offender had diagnosable histories of mental health problems.  Patients who have histories of arson coalesce in the main around a diagnostic cluster of 'personality disorder'.  The relationship between malicious fire-setting as an act of youthful delinquency and its definition as an adult psychiatric condition is not well understand and there is an absence of longitudinal research following child firesetters into adulthood.  Factors associated with developmental patterns are not well defined though one study compared adolescent and adult arsonists finding that while both juvenile and adult firesetters were motivated by aggression and revenge and tended to set fire to their own homes, younger firesetters were found to have conduct disorders whereas adults offended as a result of alcoholism, schizophrenia, and personality disorder (Bradford & Dimock, 1986).

The challenge of managing and treating patients in low and high secure psychiatric institutions who have chronic histories of arson, is rather uncharted territory.  Given that there is a new impetus to developing more coherent theories of managing aspects of personality disorder presentation (DoH, 2004), particularly where the task may be one of discharge and rehabilitation, a review of the treatment of malicious firesetters is timely.    Is it possible to extrapolate anything of our understanding of treating psychiatric patients in a way that might inform the challenge understanding pyromania more generally as an aspect of delinquency in the public sphere?  In the first place the emphasis would be on those case history elements of malicious firesetting which point towards a explanatory developmental psychology and the long term impact of adverse childhood experiences such as neglect and abuse (Arlow, 1978; Delshadian, 2003; Epps & Hollin, 2000; Greenburg, 1960; Joseph, 1960; Zachary, 1994). 


Arlow, J (1978) Pyromania and the primal scene: a psychoanalytic comment on the work of Yukio Mishima. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 47: 24-51

Bradford, J & Dimock, J  (1986).  A comparative study of adolescents and adults who wilfully set fires.  Psychiatric Journal of the University of Ottawa, 11, 228-234.

Delshadian, S (2003) Playing with fire: art therapy in a prison setting.  Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 17, 1: 68-84.  

DoH (2003)  Personality Disorder - No Longer a Diagnosis of Exclusion.  HMSO.  London

Epps, K., & Hollin, C. R.  (2000).  Understanding and treating adolescent firesetters.  In G. Boswell (Ed.), Violent children and adolescents: Asking the question why, (pp.  36-55).  London:  Whurr.

Greenburg, H R (1966) Pyromania in a woman.  Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 35: 256-262 

Joseph, E (1960) Cremation, fire and oral aggression. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 29: 98-104 

ODPM (2004)  Social Exclusion.  HMSO.  London. 

Palmer, E J; Caulfield, L S & Hollin, C R (2003)  Evaluation of interventions with arsonist and young firesetters.  Report prepared for fire and rescue service directorate of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.  Department of Health Sciences.  University of Leicester

Ritchie, E C & Huff, T G  (1999).  Psychiatric aspects of arsonists.  Journal of Forensic Science, 44: 733-740.

Zachary, A (1994) The meaning of the delinquent act: a link between arson & asthma.    Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 8, 1: 77-86.

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