In Australia, a country that has to deal with more than 62,000 forest fires annually, a psychological portrait of this kind of criminal has been drawn: an overwhelming majority of men, often with difficult life paths and significant criminal records.
But what goes on in the head of an arsonist? Since the beginning of July, several fires have ravaged the French forests. And whether in Landiras (Gironde), on the Monts d’Arrée (Finistère), in Ardèche and in Hérault, the investigators have each time indicated that the criminal track was privileged. In addition to being linked to human activity, as for 9 out of 10 forest fires in France, these fires would therefore all have in common a voluntary triggering.
Among the suspected profiles, that of the arsonist is intriguing. Unlike the arsonist, who lights a fire for material or political reasons, the arsonist does not meet any criterion of rationality. Particularly difficult to apprehend, the arsonist and his psychology are still difficult to know, although some legal experts in France try each year to unravel the mysteries. And the conditions do not make police investigations simple, because of the flames destroying all traces of DNA.
“In general, they act alone. This aspect of their life is very private, secret”, details for BFMTV Jean-Pierre Bouchard, psychologist and criminologist. He who has interviewed many arsonists in his career nevertheless recognizes a common point: “it is this fascination and this pleasure for fire”.
Possible sexual stimulation
Among the different profiles of arsonists mentioned by psychologists, we first find those who are stimulated, sexually or not, by the idea of fire.
“It may seem surprising to the general population, but in the cases that I could see, some spoke well of intense pleasure in setting fire. He was like a partner who gives pleasure, even an erotic partner. One of ‘between them even told me that the fire gave him more pleasure than his own wife and his sexual partners”, declares Jean-Pierre Bouchard.
In Australia, where 62,000 fires break out each year, the profile of arsonists is particularly studied. Paul Read, climate criminologist at the Faculty of Medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, nevertheless warns in the columns of the Sydney Morning Herald against an excessive interpretation of this sexual fascination with flames. “You are not going to find arsonists dancing around the fire (…). This is nonsense”.
To explain these acts, which seem to go beyond all logical understanding, the experts also point to an important need for recognition. In the Hérault, a volunteer firefighter was arrested on Tuesday evening, suspected of being responsible for eight fires that he potentially helped to put out.
“Some approach the investigation or even participate in it. The firefighter-arsonist is a classic. It’s extremely rare but it happened because it’s a way to get closer to the fire,” says Jean- Pierre Bouchard.
Still in Australia, a particularly evocative and high-profile case is emblematic of this profile. This is Brendan Sokaluk, a former volunteer firefighter who in 2009 started a fire that killed 10 people.
Journalist Chloe Hooper, in her book the arsonist, attempted to unravel the mysteries of man. Thus, she reveals that after setting fire to a eucalyptus plantation, Brendan Sokaluk climbed on his roof to admire the flames, before going to walk his dog in the burning area. But it was above all his active role in relief operations that led to his arrest.
Several photos available on Australian site ABC News show him helping a rescue worker tow his burnt-out car onto a truck, the same one he used to start his fire. He was also caught helping his neighbors put out the flames threatening their home, and spoke to investigators many times. A total of 160 witnesses identified him at the scene of the fire.
Chaotic life paths
Can certain family and personal histories lead an individual to pyromania? At least that’s what Australian specialists think. “The profile of arsonists and arsonists is always the same. Half of the cases are children, and there is a minority of elderly people. The most dangerous people are those between 30 and 60 years old. 90% of them are men”, analyzes Paul Read in the Sydney Morning Herald.
For the climate criminologist, among the “psychosexual” arsonists, those arrested have in common a strange personality and limited intelligence, coming from a problem and marginalized family. Similarly, these “fire freaks” are often implicated in other misdeeds, and not just related to fires.
Finally, childhood and its unfolding seem to be the cornerstone in the making of an arsonist. Clinical psychologist in Paris, Johanna Rozenblum thus indicates to BFMTV that pyromania is “a fairly rare mental disorder, which appears during childhood, mainly in boys. This is particularly the case in those who have had a repressive education and mistreating, with a deficiency in the possibility of expressing their emotions”.
Paul Read confirms this observation. “Coming from a disadvantaged background is the first characteristic. There is also the preponderant role of education, such as bullying at school. (…) In most of the cases studied, young arsonists were victims of physical or sexual abuse. The older ones of childhood abuse, a profile aggravated by a history of personal violence and drug use”.
Didn’t Brendan Sokaluk, the Australian firefighter-arsonist, stop school at 11 after being violently harassed? After his arrest, he was also diagnosed with autism, with a borderline personality.
It remains to be seen whether a treatment is possible for these people. Johanna Rozenblum evokes a necessary psychological follow-up. But faced with this mental disorder, she does not rule out psychiatric and drug treatment in parallel.