Why Would Someone Deliberately Start A Wildfire?

Firefighters watch from the Lake Hemet Campground near the incident command post for the Cranston Fire as flames crawl over Baldy Mountain. (Kyle Stokes / LAist)

Every year, arsonists start hundreds of wildfires in California. The latest is the Cranston Fire, which has burned more than 13,000 acres outside Idyllwild.

But what drives people to start these fires? And what, if anything, do arsonists have in common? We asked some experts.

WHO THEY ARE

"An arsonist is usually a lone white male, 18-34 years old. He's disgusted or disgruntled with society, doesn't perform well at work, doesn't get along well with people, loves military and police paraphernalia, can't maintain a stable relationship, has some weird sexual problems and issues with alcohol," said John Maclean, who has written five books about wildfires, including two about deadly California fires started by arsonists.

Obviously not every arsonist fits this profile, but Maclean says it can be helpful to investigators in the early stages of their search for suspects.

We don't know much about, Brandon McGlover, the man accused of setting the Cranston Fire. He doesn't have a criminal record in Riverside County. John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County District Attorney, said they had "nothing specific" yet on possible motive and called the case unusual.

Brandon McGlover appears in court where he pleaded not guilty to 15 counts of felony arson. (Riverside County DA)

WHY THEY DO IT

People set fires for all kinds of reasons. They do it for the thrill, to cover up evidence of a crime, to collect insurance money, for revenge and because other people did it before them, says David Butry, an economist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who studies wildfires.

Arson is more common during economic downturns, according to Butry's research. So when unemployment is higher and wages stagnate, more people set fires. Not surprisingly, arson is also more common when police aren't around.

Firefighters work as the Cranston Fire burns in San Bernardino National Forest on July 26, 2018 near Idyllwild. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Arsonists are also influenced by other arsonists. "If you have an arson ignition today, the likelihood of having one tomorrow is increased. And that higher likelihood lasts for several days," Butry says. "It's consistent with the idea that there may be serial or copy cat arsonists."

SURPRISE

Some arsonists are firefighters. Seriously.

A seasonal firefighter arrested for arson in Montana earlier this year was sentenced to 35 years in prison. According to The Missoulian, "he initially said he was a contract firefighter but confessed to starting the fires because he enjoyed the camaraderie of firefighting and needed the financial payoff from fighting fires."

In an even crazier case from 1991, Glendale's chief arson investigator was arrested for arson. John Orr was charged with setting multiple wildfires, including one that destroyed 67 homes. In his house was the draft of a novel about an arsonist firefighter who got turned on by setting blazes.

In fact, California's rash of arson-started wildfires in the '70s and '80s was due to problems with volunteer firefighters setting blazes, according to Maclean.

"It makes sense," he said. "People who like fire, are attracted to fire, get into the fire service."

THE NUMBERS

Today, arsonists start on average about 200 wildfires a year in California. That's down a lot from the peak in the 1970s and '80s, when arsonists lit about 1,200 fires a year.

But those fires are doing more damage than in the past.

That's because the conditions today are much more conducive to huge wildfires than in the past.

There are a lot of reasons why.

LET IT BURN

For a nearly a century, we've been putting out fires on public lands and in forests right away. For many years, the US Forest Service even had a rule that all fires needed to be out by 10 a.m. the day after they were first detected. That meant that all the saplings and small trees that would've been destroyed in a small fire were able to survive.

So today, the forest is much thicker than it used to be, and all those small trees and brush act exactly like kindling when a fire starts, meaning today's fires are bigger and burn hotter than they did in the past.

There's also climate change. It's hotter and drier. The recent drought we had in California killed more than 129 million trees in California. And some scientists think that might mean big fires are more likely now.

And then there's us. Where we live. We increasingly are building houses in dangerous, fire prone places, like the foothills and in canyons. Our houses are surrounded by fuel. And the more people are near all the fuel, the easier it is for one of us to accidentally start a fire. Or start one on purpose, like in the Cranston Fire.