Why do some of us fall in love with fire; the way it moves, changes, threatens? What forms can a fascination for fire take? From an innocent curiosity for fire, shared by most children, to one that is more sensual in nature or to the psychopath serial arsonist who has an obsession to set destructive fires. Pyromania, when it happens, never fails to make the news.
A Convicted Serial Arsonist
This journey into pyromania ends in a secure metal institution deep in the English countryside. Here we find Bob, a convicted serial arsonist serving three life sentences. 32 years ago, Bob heard a voice in his head telling him to burn everything in his path. Bob is the culmination point of our journey into pyromania. To appreciate his story fully, we need to start where every fascination with fire begins.
Every child plays with fire at some stage. The problem starts when the parents don’t stop it in time and the fire-fighters have to take over One evening’s ride with the Merseyside blue squad demonstrates the scope of the problem.
An Obsession with Fire
In an area of less than 1.5 million people, fire crews are called to nearly 3,000 fires a year. Annually, the fires cause over 40 million pounds in damage, 560 injuries and at least fifteen deaths. Children and juveniles are responsible for up to 80% of all the property fires, making them the most destructive class of fire-setters in the world. The scale of juvenile fire-setting was first recognised in the US. Psychologist Ken Fineman was one of the pioneers addressing juvenile arson “We found that at least 50% of arson fires, in various areas, were child related”.
The Juvenile Arsonist
Ashley started setting fires at the age of eleven, after his father left home “I was amused by the flames and the colours and everything”.
Reece, sixteen, also started setting small fires after his parents split up “When my mum got a new boyfriend, she sort of turned against me and that’s when I started drinking and smoking drugs an’ that. I was going out doing what I wanted to do”.
As is usual in juvenile fire-setting, one of Reece’s little fire-experiments got out of control. Most juvenile arsonists never know what’s hit then until its too late. A small fire in a dustbin burned the doctor’s surgery down. After Reece was arrested he had to participate in a treatment programme. Reece “If it hadn’t been for the course I would either be in prison or dead at the moment”. Today Reece has become friends with the firemen. He wants to become a fire-fighter himself.
Both Ashley and Reece stopped setting fires after attending the treatment programme for fire-setters, But, there are more kids out there that cost the economy 1.8 billion pounds a year in fire damage.
Determined action is being taken to deter juvenile arson from a very young age. Fire crews are now even making home visits to child fire-setters in an attempt to stamp out the problem before it begins.
For those who don’t go through a fire-setting programme, there is a less destructive, yet much more bizarre way, to channel an obsession for fire. Fire can grow into a way of life without, necessarily, being destructive.
The Fire Lovers
After the sun sets in Los Angeles, a strange breed of people come out of their shells. A group of people who have found an alternative way to deal with their pyromania. Ted Ward, leader of ‘The Burn Club’ says he was adopted by fire early in childhood. Around two dozen fire-enthusiasts learn the latest tricks from Ted Ward every Wednesday at Midnight.
At about the same time, in Portland, Oregon another, similar, group of people meet up with their leader who calls himself ‘Fire Ninja’. He’s a lawyer during the day, but at night he’s a fire-arouser. Getting sexually aroused by fire is an exceptional yet clear sign of pyromania.
Marvin Casey is a legendary arson investigator who believes pyromania is essentially sexual in nature. Aside from their sexual orientation the fire-performers ultimate purpose with fire usually lies in showing-off. The Ted Wards and the Fire Ninjas of the world have found a creative outlet for their fire fascination. In a sense they are pyromaniacs without being a menace to society. They also share a sense of respect for fire with another group of people who engage with fire on a daily basis, but their sole purpose is to fight it.
Fire-Fighters tackle over 2.5 million fires in the US and the UK every year. Its no wonder they’ve become modern day heroes. But, there is a question that they don’t like you to ask; are they driven by a secret fascination with fire themselves? Spending just a day with the L.A. Fire Department, one gets a sense of the devastation even a small fire can cause.
In order to understand how fire behaves, the basic training of fire-fighters also includes the various ways of how to set fires, but what happens if a pyromaniac becomes a fire-fighter, for all the wrong reasons?
The Serial Arsonist
Joe Wambaugh used to be a detective sergeant for the LAPD for 20 years. Today, he is an internationally famous writer. While writing ‘Fire Lover’, a story about a massive series of arson fires in California, he became intimate with the mindset of a serial arsonist. He explains “Several years ago, in LA, there were are series of fires that were set, one of which burned down 65 houses. These fires, seemingly, had no pattern and sometimes there were three a day. Finally, a fire was set at a hardware store in Southern Pasadena that killed four people including a three year old boy. This was a massive fire that people just couldn’t move fast enough to escape”.
Marvin Casey had an idea. This series of fires had been set from Los Angeles north to Fresno where, coincidentally, there was a convention of arson investigators. Wouldn’t it be strange if an arson investigator turned out to be the serial arsonist? Marvin Casey followed his gut-instinct and came up with a list of 55 names.
It took a few years and another symposium in L.A. to identify a suspect who’s identity would send shock-waves through the fire-fighting community for years to come. John Leonard Orr was a legendary arson investigator. The idea of him being the serial arsonist who started hundreds of fires was a complete shock to those who worked closely with him.
Joe Wambaugh “John Orr had wanted to be a police officer but his application was turned won when he failed a psychiatric test. His fingerprints were on file from the application and these would prove to be his downfall”.
Marvin Casey “John Orr was a pyschopath and he was driven psychologically, like a fire-bug”. On the face of it, judging by his appearance and reputation, John Orr was an unlikely psychopath. Orr’s darker side was about to be revealed in an ironic twist.
In a stunt worthy of a Hollywood thriller, John Orr tried to create the perfect alibi, by framing himself! He wrote a novel, and his manuscript is a study of the mindset of a psychopathic serial arsonist. His protagonist leads a double-life and gets a power-trip from setting fires and fire also turns him on sexually. In addition to the fires, the manuscript also revealed more bizarre crimes that even the investigators were unaware of. Wambaugh “He described a situation where a fire-fighter raped and killed a girl”.
John Orr’s hunger for fame and recognition finally brought him down, Orr was found guilty of four homicides and he is now serving life without parole. It is estimated that he may have set as many as 10,000 fires. He has never admitted to any of them.
Even serial arsonists are not, necessarily, pyromaniacs as many of them set fires for other reasons. Candidates like Bruce Lee and Paul Keller set many fires for revenge or out of spite.
CREDITS: All of the above information came from the UK Channel 4 “Pyromania” documentary produced by Firecracker Films.
Pyromania – Wikipedia Page
Fire Lovers – Joseph Wambaugh
Pyromania, Kleptomania and Other Impulse Control Disorders – Julie Williams