In England and Wales, the act of arson is included in the Criminal Damage Act 1971 as a crime in which a fire is deliberately set with the intention of destroying or damaging property. The act of arson may also endanger life. In Scotland the legal term for the act of deliberately setting a fire is fire-raising. The generic term firesetter is often used in the context of children below the age of criminal responsibility who deliberately set fires (e.g., Fineman, 1980). The issue of terminology is complicated with offenders who have a mental disorder: first, these offenders may not fall under the rubric of criminal law, so technically they are not arsonists (although convicted arsonists may be transferred from prison to mental health facilities); second, there are international variations in law, so that terminology varies; third, there are variations in the use of terms across the literature. For simplicity the term ‘arson’ is used here in a generic sense to refer to deliberately setting fires, an act that brings about significant harm to people and property at a considerable financial cost (Palmer et al, 2010).
Fire: basic figures
The government statistics for England and Wales, published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Arson Control Forum, 2003), show that since the early 1990s there have been more than 3500 incidents of arson, causing 32 000 injuries and 1200 deaths. On average, arson brought about 55 injuries and two deaths a week, most of which occurred when the fire was in a dwelling. In 2006 there were 68 deaths attributed to arson in a place of residence (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2008). There may also be large financial costs associated with arson. For example, when a fire destroys a public building, such as a school or a hospital, the costs of rebuilding and replacing equipment are substantial. A fire in a factory may destroy equipment and stock, again with heavy costs. Indeed, many businesses close permanently after a fire, adding job losses to the costs.
The empirical literature on those who set fires, which directly informs evidence-based practice, falls into the three groupings of juveniles, adults and psychiatric populations.