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What is Arson?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Arson is defined as the willful act of setting something on fire, usually a home or another type of structure. People commit arson for a variety of reasons, and the crime is severely punished all over the world because it puts lives and property at risk. In some parts of the world, if someone dies in a fire that was deliberately set, it is considered to be murder, rather than manslaughter or negligent homicide, because arson is deemed to be such a reprehensible act. In all instances, a conviction carries a prison term.

Motives for arson vary. In many instances, a property owner commits this crime in an attempt to collect the value of the property, which is usually insured against fire. Arson is also committed to cover up evidence of another crime, and some individuals even undertake it for entertainment or thrills. Some vandals also set property on fire, sometimes not with the express purpose of burning a building down, but with the idea of more general property damage in mind.

Some people with mental illness engage in fire setting as part of their mental condition. Usually, they start out with small objects in contained spaces, but if the tendency is left unchecked, they may graduate to arson. When fire setting is part of a mental illness, it is usually treated through psychotherapy and behavioral therapy, both attempts to get at the roots of an anti-social behavior. In rare instances, an arsonist may be confined in a mental treatment facility until he or she is better.

Although the motives for arson are sometimes complex, the law is usually crystal clear: anyone who deliberately sets fire to something will be punished for it. In some regions, a fire that is caused by extreme negligence or disregard will also be classified as arson. The penalty for committing this crime often depends on things like how much property was damaged, the total value of the damages, and whether or not people were trapped in the fire. The intent also plays a role, such as whether the fire was set to defraud an insurance agency, cover up a crime, was part of a revenge crime, or was designed to entertain or amuse the arsonist, for example.

Most parts of the world have arson investigators, who inspect the sites of suspicious fires to determine the cause of the fire and whether or not it was deliberate. This job can sometimes be quite difficult, especially when evidence is obscured by the efforts of those trying to put out or clean up the fire. Arson investigators use a variety of techniques to examine the sites of fires including chemical analysis of evidence, the use of sniffer dogs, and simple powers of observation.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Potterspop — On May 23, 2011

I wonder if people who smoke in bed and subsequently cause a fire in their home could be considered an arson case? Considering that most people know this is a risky thing to do, I think it should be.

Of course the same thing could be said about those who overload electrical sockets, or do any of the other everyday actions which could easily contribute to a fire starting.

By MissMuffet — On May 22, 2011

@Bakersdozen - That's a sad story and I'm really sorry that your friend and her family had to go through it.

It makes sense that the police and insurance company would investigate thoroughly, as more than half of arson crimes are committed by minors.

Having said that, once it is clear there is no evidence they should have all been cleared. Perhaps it's worth her fighting it at a higher level than the insurance company itself?

By Bakersdozen — On May 19, 2011

My friend's garage set on fire and spread to the house. The insurance company started an arson investigation because a neighbor reported see-ing one of my friend's teenage kids running from the scene.

It was really ridiculous, why wouldn't you run away from a fire? Nobody could see how he could be blamed for starting it. Anyhow the house was structurally unfit to live in so she had to rent elsewhere for months.

The arson forensic team could find no evidence to support any suspicious causes, but somehow the insurance people never paid.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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