Firebugs in the Firehouse

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A bus carries firefighters through the evacuated streets of Show Low, Ariz.

For firefighters wading into the flaming U.S. forests last week, the news stayed nasty. Even as some of the biggest wildfires were brought under control, more than two dozen blazes still raged across nearly a million acres in eight western states. Meanwhile six more states in the heartland and Pacific Northwest were placed on fire alert, and stubborn drought and searing heat threatened to turn the East flammable too.

But what really hurt was the suspicion that some of the fires they were fighting were set by their own people. Just three weeks after the discovery that Colorado's vast Hayman fire was started by Forest Service worker Terry Barton, officials announced that they suspected the so-called Rodeo blaze in Arizona had been set by part-time firefighter Leonard Gregg so that he would get paid to help put it out.

That development got a lot of people talking about one of the fire service's least discussed secrets: firebugs in the firehouse. In the past year alone, firefighters have been accused in at least 10 states of setting blazes in homes, schools, public buildings and woods. In Lancaster, Pa., a fireman was sentenced to jail in February for eight cases of arson committed over a four-year period. In Long Island, N.Y., a fireman was arrested for burning his own firehouse.

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Though the problem hit the front pages in the last few weeks, firefighters have worried about it for years. And even as firechiefs look for ways to spot troublemakers in their ranks, psychologists are asking deeper questions. What is it about fire that so seduces and unbalances people hired to control it? What is it about being humans that draws us to flames and repels us as well? As environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne of Arizona State University points out: "Human beings as a species have a monopoly on fire. But while we're physically equipped to handle it, we do not come programmed in its use."

For all the damage firefighter arsonists do, even groups like the United States Fire Administration have no idea how many are out there — mostly because firefighters are a hard group to track. There are about 1.1 million in the U.S., but only 20% are fulltime professionals. The rest are part-timers or volunteers who drift in and out of service, and it's from these shifting ranks that problem firefighters tend to arise. "We need to be careful not to put professional firefighters or even most volunteers into this category," warns former fireman Ken Cabe of the South Carolina Forestry Commission.

Cabe and others have found that the typical fireman arsonist is a white male between 17 and 26, generally with a spotty work record and an unstable home life. The wobbly ego and need for attention that can accompany such a background may make the heroism of the fire department irresistible. For some, simply joining the volunteer corps and waiting for a blaze is not enough. The temptation is to light the fire and then bask in the recognition that comes from being the first to sound the alarm. "There's a need to be the hero," says George Miller, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), "to be there with the rest of the men putting the fire out." As seems to be the case in the Arizona fire, there may also be a financial incentive. For part-time firemen who get paid by the blaze, the odd bit of arson can be a handy way to generate cash flow.

To be sure, a taste for fire is not always a sign of pathology. According to clinical psychologist Marcel Chappuis, a consultant with the Salt Lake City Fire Department, most boys (possibly 90%) and a handful of girls (maybe 15%) naturally develop a fascination with flame between ages four and seven. Most of these "curiosity fire setters" soon find other interests. But by nine or 10, as many as 20% of these kids may still be lighting fires, thrilled by the power of the blaze and the excitement of trying to control it. The trouble comes when the behavior persists even longer and outlaw fires become linked with other psychological problems. "Often these people are also diagnosed with depression, anger or otherwise fragile psyches," says Chappuis.

Fortunately, spotting such unstable personalities may be easy. Most municipal fire departments require career candidates to submit to psychological screening. But since it is the volunteers — often in rural areas — who commit the most arson, plenty of dangerous characters still slip by. Two years ago, South Carolina passed a law requiring registration and background checks of professional and volunteer firefighters. Delaware already requires screening for ambulance drivers and a similar rule for firefighters is likely to follow. This week, delegates from 25 states will gather in New York City for the annual meeting of the NASFM, during which the topic of screening is expected to be widely discussed. "We're trying to develop some guidelines," says association attorney Tony Walker. Until that happens, fire marshals and local departments will have to continue warily policing their own. — With reporting by David Bjerklie and Sora Song/New York, Christopher Preston/Washington and Rita Healy/Denver