Inside the Mind of the Serial Arsonist
Kayla Baxter, FireLink.com
November 18, 2009
In 1991, a fire at a Los Angeles fabric store called “D & M Yardage” escalated to the point of destruction. An employee remembered, “I could hear all the windows bursting open.”
It was a family business, fueled mostly by neighborhood customers and regulars. There was no ill will that the owner knew of, it was a safe neighborhood, and yet all signs pointed to arson.
Firefighters are required to report the cause and origin of every fire they attend. Fire investigation remains one of the most difficult jobs in fire and rescue because a majority of the evidence is destroyed by the fire, including finger prints, or worse, destroyed by firefighters in their efforts to put out the fire.
Arson investigators typically aren’t called to the scene until afterwards. The fire is over, the arsonist is gone, and the witnesses are all gone. Fingerprints and devices used are usually destroyed, and all that is left are burn patterns and charred remains.
Investigators will sometimes set fires themselves to try and pinpoint the origins of a fire. They create false trails, pour accelerant onto electrical outlets to try and create the appearance of an electrical fire, to imagine what an arsonist would have done, and to try and learn from it.
The fires set by investigators are only allowed to burn as long as it would take for firefighters to arrive, but even fires that burn unattended leave some evidence.
Using accelerants is dangerous business. Arsonists have been arrested in hospital emergency rooms, victims of their own crime.
Surface burn patterns can indicate where the fire started- the point of origin. If you know what to look for, you can figure out how the fire started in the first place. Investigators smell the area, looking for gasoline, which is protected by the water put on the fire by firefighters. The water keeps the gasoline from evaporating.
Most accelerants can be found in a lab. Petroleum products have distinct chemical markings, which can be broken down and graphed. The types of accelerants can lead investigators to the arsonist.
With the D &M Yardage Fire, two other store fires had happened that same day. The fires seemed to spring out of nowhere- leading to the feeling there was a delay device used. All of the fires were also started in shops that had large supplies of pillows, which, when they burn down, produce a flammable gas that ignited the stores with alarming speed.
Further investigation turned up similar fires in the same area, all ironically centered on the location of an arson investigation convention, all in the Los Angeles area. In one investigation, 3 stores on the same street had burned simultaneously.