Who is setting France's forests on fire, and why?

·6-min read
AFP - THIBAUD MORITZ

Record high temperatures and drought in France have provided ideal conditions for wildfires. While most are sparked by human error, some are set off deliberately, and occasionally by firefighters themselves. Pyromaniacs and arsonists have different motivations, but gendarmes have an equally hard time tracking them down.

Firefighters and locals in the village of Saint-Jean-de-la-Baquiere were in a state of shock and disbelief on Friday after a volunteer firefighter admitted to starting eight fires in the area, which he then helped to extinguish.

Earlier in the week, prosecutors said two forest fires that broke out in Brittany, northwest France, destroying 1,700 hectares of forest, were “without doubt of human origin”.

A 44-year old man was arrested on Thursday, with a high level of alcohol in his blood, after he admitted starting a fire which led to the destruction of 1,200 hectares in Ardèche.

"Pyromaniacs are criminals who threaten people’s safety and damage our heritage,” the head of the Ardèche department, Olivier Amrane, said in a statement on Thursday.

He deplored the "unprecedented damage” and called for "exemplary sanctions".

On 16 July a 20-year-old man admitted to setting two fires in the village of Sernhac in Le Gard. They were in exactly the same place, a week apart, according to Midi-Libre.

In Gironde, southwest France, where the worst of recent wildfires occurred, a 39-year old man was temporarily held in custody this week on suspicion of starting fires around the village of Landiras where 10,500 hectares went up in flames.

He was released for lack of evidence.

Difficult to trace

Securing incriminating evidence is difficult in cases of arson.

There's little chance of finding traces of DNA.

“It’s the hardest type of crime to stop, it’s very difficult to arrest an arsonist with evidence showing he took part,” the brigade major with Nyons gendarmerie told France Inter.

His team did manage to arrest an 18-year old who’d set three fires in two weeks in the wine-growing region of Vinsobres.

Witnesses had identified the young man's presence at the site of the fires.

When he was stopped, gendarmes found a gas lighter and matches in his back-pack, though he initially claimed to be a non-smoker.

They first became suspicious when the suspect offered his services at the local fire station "but didn't live in the region".

"He was clearly fascinated by fire, had lots of videos of firefighters on his phone putting out flames,” said the Major.

“Pyromaniacs return to see their fires,” they take pleasure in “contemplating the damage”, he added.

Prototype arsonist

Gendarmes and criminologists agree it's difficult to draw up a profile of a typical arsonist.

There are relatively few studies, using small samples.

But in all the cases cited above, the suspect was male and acted alone.

"One thing we can be sure of is that the majority of arsonists – about 90 percent – are men” said psychiatrist and criminologist Pierre Lamothe.

Arsonists are generally “well integrated socially, often married, aged between 18 and 35 […] and most often native to the region” writes clinical psychologist Julie Palix, author of Arson and Pyromania.

Those who light forest fires in particular are "more marginal," Palix says, "single men, younger and more likely to be delinquent".

She found that around two thirds of arsonists had “planned and pre-meditated” their acts, carrying out reconnaissance of the sites before setting them ablaze.

Motivation

France has different terms for arsonists depending on their motivation.

Incendiaires refers to fire-starters who are looking for some sort of revenge while pyromanes describes those who react more impulsively, irrationally, and are fascinated by the fire itself.

While the former category might set only one fire, the latter tend to repeat offend.

Pyromaniacs “are unable to separate themselves from the source of pleasure, [the feeling] of being all-powerful, which the fire generates,” criminologist and clinical psychologist Marjorie Sueur told La Voix du Nord.

“For some, setting fires can have a sexual connotation, a way of affirming a sense of superiority that they may be lacking.”

She outlines several profiles: immature offenders acting under the influence of another; the simple-minded who don't measure the impact of, for example, throwing a cigarette butt away; the mentally-ill suffering from schizophrenia or hallucinations who might light a fire believing it's positive by purifying the environment”; and the alcohol-dependent.

The most dangerous category, she says, are the psychopaths and perverts “because they have no remorse and on the contrary take pleasure in transgressing the law”.

Firefighter arson

Occasionally, arsonists are also firefighters, like the 37-year-old arrested this week on suspicion of setting seven separate fires in an area west of Montpellier.

The man, a forester and deputy mayor, confessed to starting the fires for the "adrenaline rush" and to gain "social recognition".

He also sought to "provoke firefighting operations in order to escape from an oppressive family environment".

In an interview he gave to local media last year, reported by BFM TV, he described his passion for firefighting.

“When you are called to a fire, of course you’re afraid, but we are above all guided by adrenaline and the desire to save nature. We are all addicts, some people say we’re crazy.”

Punish or heal?

There is still much debate in France over whether pyromania should be treated as a mental illness or a crime.

The term “pyromanie” first appeared in France in 1833 in a medical reference book by French psychiatrist Henri Marc.

Throughout the 19th century doctors pushed for pyromania to be recognised as an illness, while lawyers insisted individuals who set fires were fully responsible for their acts, historian Jean-Jacques Yvorel told La Croix.

Making the distinction was important, he says, since arsonists were often sentenced to death.

With no system of insurance at that time, losing your entire crop “was a real source of anguish”.

Even now, health professionals are divided over how to view people who deliberately set fires.

Psychiatrist and criminologist Michel Bénézech considers the term illness is perfectly appropriate for this type of behaviour.

There is “sexual excitement linked to setting off fires; it’s a form of sexual perversion,” he said.

Pierre Lamothe is more circumspect.

“I don’t think we can talk of illness, out of the 30 or so arsonists I’ve met in my career, many had no history of mental illness."

The risks

Unless the arsonist is judged psychotic, he faces 10 years behind bars and a 150,000-euro fine.

The sentence can go up to 15 years if the fire destroys "forests, moors, scrubland or plantations belonging to others under conditions likely to expose people to physical harm".

The firefighter in the Montpellier case faces the maximum penalty.

The 18-year old in Le Gard was handed a two-year prison sentence, 18 months suspended, with the obligation to seek medical help.

According to Palix, “only 1 percent of arsonists worldwide are identified and arrested”.

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