Arsonist's smoldering sickness tests crimefighters

October 31, 2003|By Joseph Wambaugh

LOS ANGELES - Southern California has been struck by firestorms roaring through hills and valleys and ranches and housing tracts. The fires race before Santa Ana winds, feeding on the excellent fuel provided by bone-dry brush. There has been a lot of death and there will be more: deer, rabbits, raccoons, birds so confused they fly into flames, horses, cattle, dogs, cats, people.

Several of the fires were probably set deliberately. Who could do such a thing?

One of the problems for arson investigators dealing with major brush fires is that the point of origin, the place where the fire was set, is extraordinarily hard to detect after the burn and the water and the digging.

More difficult is trying to decide whether the fire-starter was an impulsive vandal or an organized serial arsonist for whom the fire, his fire (arsonists are almost always male), is a living, breathing child of its creator - a thing of incredible power and even beauty.

The organized arsonist is the most difficult to detect of all violent serial offenders, but he is like the others in that he's clearly sociopathic: He's indifferent to societal values, lacking in empathy, hedonistic, breathtakingly egocentric and manipulative, often intelligent and charming - and wears the mask of normalcy.

He will often use a delaying device for ignition so as to allow time for escape. It can be as simple as a lit cigarette in a book of matches, which he has seen in countless movies and TV shows.

Because he is long gone when his crime is discovered, there is seldom an eyewitness. This, along with his preference for working alone, allows him to vanish with the first billows of smoke that fill our hearts with dread, and his with ecstasy.

Usually, other motives for arson can be eliminated by investigators in the case of brush fires, allowing investigators to concentrate on the most dangerous arsonists of all - those motivated by thrill and excitement. Arson investigators know that the recent brush fires might represent a culmination of years of lesser fires, because the fire lover's need for risk grows.

One thing is certain: As with serial killers, once the arsonist feels power and control, he wants more. He gives no thought to getting caught, believing that his cunning sets him apart and liberates him from the ties that bind the rest of us.

Arson investigators from fire-fighting and law enforcement ranks will conduct a dogged and painstaking investigation. They are unrelenting hunters of this most elusive of violent criminals.

But perhaps something else is worth contemplating. When the environmental lobby weighs in on this tragedy, someone should inform them that, yes, when authorities set seasonal burns, it does destroy the habitat of creatures we love. But controlled burns also provide fire breaks that, had they existed where these firestorms began, almost certainly would have provided protection against leaping embers and wind-driven flares.

It's something that environmentalists and all of us must face. There will be more winds and more dry seasons. And more men with unspeakable ideas.

Joseph Wambaugh is a former police detective and author of Fire Lover (Avon, 2003). This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Columnist Steve Chapman will return Tuesday.

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