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updated 11/4/2003 7:21:15 PM ET 2003-11-05T00:21:15

As California continues to burn, authorities reportedly believe that arsonists started most of the 10 fires that already have claimed at least 16 lives and an area the size of Rhode Island. The question is why.

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“The truth is, very little is known about arsonists because so few arsons are solved,” says psychologist Joel Dvoskin, Ph.D., ABPP, of the University of Arizona Medical School and a member of the American Board of Forensic Psychology who has done work on the psychological motivations behind arson.

Still, he tells WebMD that studies indicate that the most common reason for arson is profit. “Buildings are often set on fire for insurance purposes,” he tells WebMD. “But certainly, that doesn’t fit the pattern of what’s happening in California.”

For those fires, based on what’s known, anger is a more likely explanation for what has resulted in one of the most widespread and expensive disasters ever to occur in that state — engulfing some 600,000 acres and 2,000 homes.

Brains and arson
According to a 1987 report in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, the vast majority of “profiled” arsonists have a below-normal IQ — typically between 70 and 90. About one in four fall in the below-70 IQ range that qualifies them as mentally retarded — not to say that all mentally retarded children are going to grow up to be arsonists.

“In these types of cases, arson is often committed by someone who is retarded but also angry. It’s that combination that is a catalyst — their anger but having fewer means to express it,” says Dvoskin. “Honestly, I can’t think of a single arsonist I’ve dealt with for whom anger wasn’t the primary motivator.”

In the FBI report, as well as statistics by the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, half of all arsons are committed by those younger than age 18; the other half is typically in their late 20s. In arson cases involving older people, the motivation is usually for profit. About 90 percent of all arsonists are male and they are usually white, states the FBI report.

On Tuesday, California authorities released a composite sketch of a white man believed to be in his late 20s, who was seen by eyewitnesses starting one of the fires.

Yet Dvoskin is leery of “profiling” arsonists because those profiles are usually based on arsonists who have been apprehended by authorities — and most aren’t. “It could be that the smarter people get away with it, and less smart people are more likely to get caught,” he tells WebMD.

Another expert who counsels young arsonists says that while many fire-setters indeed have below-normal intelligence, many of his patients are just the opposite.

“About a fifth of our population is extremely bright, and many of these kids are reading at a college level,” says Alan Feldberg, Ph.D., a psychologist at Cornell Abraxas Group, a center in Pennsylvania that treats “fire-setting youths.” “Some are extremely computer-savvy and learn in a scientific way how to set fires to get maximum impact.”

But anger remains the primary motivation of his patients — teens between 12 and 19 with a history of starting fires.

“If you ask our kids why they set fires, the first answer you get is, ‘Because I have an anger problem,’” Feldberg tells WebMD. “Based on data we’ve collected on our teenagers, these kids are often neglected and have a history of physical abuse and humiliation.” These characteristics are consistent with the FBI profile of the typical arsonist.

Revenge, excitement, arousal
Still, there are other motivations: “Revenge, excitement, and thrills are also big factors, and rarely, but certainly, there are people who are sexually aroused by fire,” he says. In some cases, fire investigators have found evidence of sexual gratification at arson sites.

While many children are fascinated by fire and may even engage in “fire play” as children, this usually disappears by puberty, says Feldberg.

But in teens who remain fire-setters, this doesn’t disappear. Untreated, these young arsonists may continue to be arsonists as they age.

“Most of us believe it’s a lot like sexual offending: If you can catch it early enough, it is a treatable disorder,” says Feldberg. “We know kids who start fires are more likely to start more fires, and particular kids will ratchet it up to become bigger, more sensationalistic, and more dangerous. Fire can make a tremendous impact.”

Arsonist red flags
He offers some red flags that could identify a possible arsonist-in-the-works:

  • Children who start playing with matches or fire as early as age 3
  • Children who frequently engage in “daredevil” behavior, especially near fire
  • Children who mix chemicals or engage in “secret” fire settings in which they try different mixtures
  • Those who are noticeably excited while watching fires

Will authorities catch the suspected arsonists behind the California blazes? “I certainly hope so, because these crimes are rarely solved,” says Dvoskin, who has consulted police on arson cases. “When they are, it’s usually because the arsonist can’t keep his mouth shut — he brags about setting the fire.”

In this case, that may not occur because Dvoskin suspects the devastation may be beyond the arsonist’s goal.

“So if they solve this, either they’re going to be lucky or it’s solved through good old-fashioned police work — some hard-working, diligent detective who follows up on hundreds or even thousands of leads and tracks down that one to solve the crime.”

WebMD content is provided to MSNBC by the editorial staff of WebMD. The MSNBC editorial staff does not participate in the creation of WebMD content and is not responsible for WebMD content. Remember that editorial content is never a substitute for a visit to a health care professional.

© 2013 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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