From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The remains of Kyoto Animation Studio 1 after being set ablaze by an arsonist

Arson is the act of willfully and deliberately setting fire to or charring property. Although the act of arson typically involves buildings, the term can also refer to the intentional burning of other things, such as motor vehicles, watercraft, or forests. The crime is typically classified as a felony, with instances involving a greater degree of risk to human life or property carrying a stricter penalty. Arson which results in death can be further prosecuted as manslaughter or murder. A common motive for arson is to commit insurance fraud.[1][2][3] In such cases, a person destroys their own property by burning it and then lies about the cause in order to collect against their insurance policy.[4]

A person who commits arson is referred to as an arsonist, or a serial arsonist if arson has been committed several times. Arsonists normally use an accelerant (such as gasoline or kerosene) to ignite, propel, and direct fires, and the detection and identification of ignitable liquid residues is an important part of fire investigations.[5] Pyromania is an impulse control disorder characterized by the pathological setting of fires.[6] Most acts of arson are not committed by pyromaniacs.[6]


The term derives from Law French arsoun (late 13th century), from Old French arsion, from Late Latin ārsiōnem "a burning," (acc.) from the verb ardēre, "to burn."[7][8][9]

The Old English term was bærnet, lit. "burning"; and Edward Coke has indictment of burning (1640). Arsonist is from 1864.[10]

English common law[edit]

Historically, the common law crime of arson was defined as "the malicious burning of the dwelling of another",[11] thus comprising four elements:

For purposes of common law arson, "malicious" refers to action creating a great risk of a burning.
At common law charring to any part of dwelling was sufficient to satisfy this element. No significant amount of damage to the dwelling was required. Any injury or damage to the structure caused by exposure to heat or flame is sufficient.
Of the dwelling
'Dwelling' refers to a place of residence. The destruction of an unoccupied building was not considered arson: "... since arson protected habitation, the burning of an unoccupied house did not constitute arson." At common law a structure did not become a residence until the first occupants had moved in, and ceased to be a dwelling if the occupants abandoned the premises with no intention of resuming their residency.[12] Dwelling includes structures and outbuildings within the curtilage.[13] Dwellings were not limited to houses. A barn could be the subject of arson if occupied as a dwelling.
Of another
Burning one's own dwelling does not constitute common law arson, even if the purpose was to collect insurance, because "it was generally assumed in early England that one had the legal right to destroy his own property in any manner he chose".[14] Moreover, for purposes of common law arson, possession or occupancy rather than title determines whose dwelling the structure is.[13] Thus a tenant who sets fire to his rented house would not be guilty of common law arson,[13] while the landlord who set fire to a rented dwelling house would be guilty.


Many U.S. state legal systems and the legal systems of several other countries divide arson into degrees, depending sometimes on the value of the property but more commonly on its use and whether the crime was committed in the day or night.

  • First-degree arson – Burning an occupied structure such as a school or a place where people are normally present
  • Second-degree arson – Burning an unoccupied building such as an empty barn or an unoccupied house or other structure in order to claim insurance on such property
  • Third-degree arson – Burning an abandoned building or an abandoned area, such as a field, forest or woods.

Many statutes vary the degree of the crime according to the criminal intent of the accused. Some US states use other degrees of arson, such as "fourth" and "fifth" degree,[15] while some states do not categorize arson by any degree. For example, in the state of Tennessee, arson is categorized as "arson" and "aggravated arson".

By region[edit]

United States[edit]

A U.S. World War II era arson poster.

In the United States, the common law elements of arson are often varied in different jurisdictions. For example, the element of "dwelling" is no longer required in most states, and arson occurs by the burning of any real property without consent or with unlawful intent.[16] Arson is prosecuted with attention to degree of severity[17] in the alleged offense. First degree arson[18] generally occurs when people are harmed or killed in the course of the fire, while second degree arson occurs when significant destruction of property occurs.[19] While usually a felony, arson may also be prosecuted as a misdemeanor,[20] "criminal mischief", or "destruction of property."[21] Burglary also occurs, if the arson involved a "breaking and entering".[22] A person may be sentenced to death if arson occurred as a method of homicide, as was the case in California of Raymond Lee Oyler and in Texas of Cameron Todd Willingham.

In New York, arson is charged in five degrees. Arson in the first degree is a Class A-1 felony and requires the intent to burn the building with a person inside using an explosive incendiary device. In New York, the criminal charge of arson includes a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.

In California, a conviction for arson of property that is not one's own is a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison. Aggravated arson, which carries the most severe punishment for arson, is punishable by 10 years to life in state prison. Raymond Lee Oyler was ultimately convicted of murder and sentenced to death for a 2006 fire in southern California that led to the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters; he was the first U.S. citizen to receive such a conviction and penalty for wildfire arson.[23]

Some states, such as California, prosecute the lesser offense of "reckless burning" when the fire is set recklessly as opposed to wilfully and maliciously. The study of the causes is the subject of fire investigation. The El Dorado fire which took place in 2020 in California is an example of this offense; caused by a gender reveal party using unsafe pyrotechnics, it ultimately resulted in the death of firefighter Charles "Charlie" Morton, who became trapped while attempting to fight the fire. The DA of California considered arson charges for the family members as they were deemed negligent with regard to fire safety.[24]

During World War II arson was a much higher concern in the United States. There was a severe lack of firefighters due to the fact most of the men were overseas to fight the war. There were few men left behind to help combat forest fires. Although there were few attempts to burn U.S. forests, it continued to be a big concern due to the potential detrimental effects. This also led into the rise of Smokey Bear who was the face of fire prevention and fire safety measures.[25][26] Although the intention of Smokey Bear's persona is to encourage fire safety, Smokey shares a message of fire prevention which includes accidental fires that can sometimes be legally charged as arson.

A 1944 fire safety poster depicting Smokey Bear.

After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the United States started a National Fire Prevention Week in order to educate the people on ways to prevent fires, minimize their damages, and hopefully drastically decrease casualties.[27] Fire Prevention Week campaigns includes various information on safe cooking practices pertaining to grilling, microwaving, and cooking on a stove.

England, Wales, and Hong Kong[edit]

Cars damaged by arson in Millwall, Tower Hamlets, London, during the 2011 England Riots

In British law, arson was a common law offence (except for the offence of arson in royal dockyards)[28] dealing with the criminal destruction of buildings by fire. The common law offence was abolished by s.11(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971.[29] The 1971 Act makes no distinction as to mode of destruction except that s.1(3) requires that if the destruction is by fire, the offence is charged as arson; s.4 of the Act provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for conviction under s.1 whether or not the offence is charged as arson. In Hong Kong, the common law offence was abolished by s 67 of the Crimes Ordinance 1971 (Part VIII of which, as amended by Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance 1972,[30] mirrored the English Criminal Damage Act 1971).[31] Like the English counterparts, 63 of the 1972 Ordinance provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and s 60(3) of the Ordinance requires that if the damage is by fire the offence should be charged as arson.


In the Burmese legal system, arson is considered "mischief by fire" under sections 435 and 436 of the Myanmar Penal Code and punishable by fine and imprisonment.[32] The statutes were last amended on 1 July 2016, and made arson on houses and buildings punishable with up to 20 years in prison.[32]

The Burmese military has long used arson as a weapon of war against civilians.[33][34] From the 2021 Myanmar coup d'état to August 2022, military forces committed arson on 28,434 houses in the country.[35]


While the Scottish legal system has no offence known as arson statutorily defined, there are many offences that are used to charge those with acts that would normally constitute arson in other nations. Events constituting arson in English and Welsh law might be dealt with as one or more of a variety of offences such as wilful fire-raising, culpable and reckless conduct, vandalism or other offences depending on the circumstances of the event. The more serious offences (in particular wilful fire-raising and culpable and reckless conduct) can incur a sentence of life imprisonment.


Ireland differentiates how it charges arson not by degree but rather by what is being destroyed and if anyone was harmed.[36] For example, while the sentence for setting fire to a building can be life imprisonment, the sentence for setting fire to goods in a building can only be up to fourteen years.

A notable historical act of arson in Ireland is the burning of Wildgoose Lodge, which resulted in the arrest, sentencing, and execution of 18 men, many of whom were innocent.[37] More recently, the 2023 Dublin riot involved instances of arson, with many such acts targeting vehicles.

Notable arsonists[edit]

  • Herostratus, accused of setting fire to the Temple of Artemis in 356 BCE.
  • Zayd ibn Musa al-Kazim, was characterized a pogrom against the supporters of the Abbasids in 815 and 816, which earned him the nickname Zayd al-Nar ('Zayd of the Fire') due to the large numbers of houses belonging to Abbasid family members or their followers that he torched.[38]
  • Murrough O'Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin, Irish nobleman and soldier, known as Murchadh na dTóiteán ("Murrough the Burner") for his role in the Sack of Cashel and other similar atrocities during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.
  • Margaret Clark set a home on fire in London in 1680.
  • David Berkowitz, American serial killer who was also implicated in many unsolved arsons in the New York City in the 1970s.
  • Peter Dinsdale, confessed to a total of 11 acts of arson, pleading guilty to 26 counts of manslaughter. The fires were set from 1972 to 1979.
  • John Leonard Orr, as arson investigator for the Glendale, CA fire department who set over 2,000 Los Angeles fires from 1984 to 1991.
  • Julio González, the perpetrator behind the Happy Land Fire killed 87 in 1990, likely as revenge against his ex-girlfriend.
  • Paul Kenneth Keller, convicted of setting over 107 fires in 1992 and 1993.
  • John Magno and several others were responsible for the Woodbine Building Supply fire in 2001.
  • Thomas Sweatt, set over 350 fires in and around Washington, D.C., most of which occurred in 2003 and 2004.
  • Raymond Lee Oyler, set the Esparanza Fire which burned over 41,000 acres of land, in 2006.
  • Benjamin Christensen, volunteer firefighter from Pennsylvania responsible for setting seven fires from 2007 to 2008.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Arson". FindLaw. Archived from the original on January 5, 2019. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  2. ^ arson Archived February 10, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Accessed: January 27, 2008
  3. ^ "StackPath". December 13, 2010. Archived from the original on January 27, 2021. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  4. ^ Zalma, Barry (January 8, 2014). "Fraud Proved – Lie About Cause Of Fire Sufficient to Support Guilty Verdict". LexisNexis. Archived from the original on January 5, 2019. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  5. ^ Almirall, José R.; Furton, Kenneth G., eds. (2004). Analysis and interpretation of fire scene evidence. Boca Raton: CRC Press. ISBN 978-0849378850. OCLC 53360702.
  6. ^ a b Burton, Paul R.; McNiel, Dale E.; Binder, Renée L. (November 2012). "Firesetting, arson, pyromania, and the forensic mental health expert" (PDF). Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 40 (3): 355–365. PMID 22960918. Archived (PDF) from the original on January 5, 2019.
  7. ^ "arson". Online Etymology Dictionary. Archived from the original on June 1, 2019. Retrieved June 2, 2019.
  8. ^ Various. Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary (part 1 of 4: A-D). Library of Alexandria. ISBN 9781465562883. Archived from the original on January 25, 2022. Retrieved October 24, 2020 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ "Definition of arson -". Archived from the original on June 1, 2019. Retrieved June 1, 2019.
  10. ^ Murray, James Augustus Henry; Craigie, Sir William Alexander; Onions, Charles Talbut (December 2, 1888). "A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles". Archived from the original on November 13, 2023. Retrieved November 13, 2023.
  11. ^ Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed.). 2009. Arson. At common law, the malicious burning of someone else's dwelling house or outhouse that is either appurtenant to the dwelling house or within the curtilage.
  12. ^ Boyce & Perkins, Criminal Law, 3rd ed. (1992) at 280, 281.
  13. ^ a b c Boyce & Perkins, Criminal Law, 3rd ed. (1992) at 281.
  14. ^ Braun, William C. (1952). "Legal Aspects of Arson". Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 43 (1): 53.
  15. ^ Nagel, Ilene H. (1983). "The Legal/Extra-Legal Controversy: Judicial Decisions in Pretrial Release". Law & Society Review. 17 (3): 481–516. doi:10.2307/3053590. JSTOR 3053590. Archived from the original on December 1, 2019. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  16. ^ See U.S. v. Miller, 246 Fed.Appx. 369 (C.A.6 (Tenn.) 2007); U.S. v. Velasquez-Reyes, 427 F.3d 1227, 1230–1231 and n. 2 (9th Cir.2005).
  17. ^ "Campus Crime: Crime Codes and Degree of Severity". California State University, Monterey Bay. Archived from the original on December 24, 2008. Retrieved May 10, 2008.
  18. ^ See U.S. v. Miller, 246 Fed.Appx. 369 (C.A.6 (Tenn.) 2007)
  19. ^ Garofoli, Joe (September 1, 2007). "Suspect in Burning Man arson decries event's loss of spontaneity". San Francisco Chronicle. p. A8. Archived from the original on April 25, 2008. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
  20. ^ "Reason for Referral". Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Archived from the original on May 3, 2008. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
  21. ^ "Man accused of arson pleads to misdemeanor charges". The Salina Journal. January 25, 2008. Archived from the original on December 22, 2008. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
  22. ^ 3 Charles E. Torcia, Wharton's Criminal Law § 326 (14th ed. 1980)
  23. ^ "Getting Tough on Arson". Utne Reader. January–February 2011. p. 13.
  24. ^ Rokos, Brian (January 11, 2022). "Doomed El Dorado firefighter's last words: trapped in a 'corner'". San Bernardino Sun. Retrieved March 27, 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  25. ^ "The cultural history of Smokey Bear". Retrieved March 5, 2024.
  26. ^ "How Fear of a WWII Invasion Gave Rise to Smokey Bear". History. August 9, 2019. Retrieved March 5, 2024.
  27. ^ Lessons from History The Chicago Fire of 1871, retrieved March 5, 2024
  28. ^ William Blackstone (1765–1769). "Of Offenses against the Habitations of Individuals [Book the Fourth, Chapter the Sixteenth]". Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press (reproduced on The Avalon Project at Yale Law School). Archived from the original on May 3, 2008. Retrieved June 1, 2008..
  29. ^ "Criminal Damage Act 1971". Archived from the original on December 8, 2009. Retrieved March 24, 2010.
  30. ^ "" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on March 7, 2021. Retrieved June 15, 2016.
  31. ^ "". Archived from the original on February 25, 2021. Retrieved June 15, 2016.
  32. ^ a b "The Penal Code". Myanmar Law Information System. July 1, 2016.
  33. ^ Mirza, Atthar; Moriarty, Dylan. "'Burn it all down': How Myanmar's military razed villages to crush a growing resistance". Washington Post. Retrieved March 15, 2023.
  34. ^ "Satellite Data Raise Fears Myanmar's Army Setting Towns Ablaze". Human Rights Watch. November 3, 2021. Retrieved March 15, 2023.
  35. ^ Sai, Ko (August 29, 2022). "Over 28,000 Homes Torched by Myanmar Junta Forces Since Coup". The Irrawaddy. Retrieved March 15, 2023.
  36. ^ Book (eISB), electronic Irish Statute. "electronic Irish Statute Book (eISB)". Retrieved March 5, 2024.
  37. ^ Muirí, Réamonn Ó (1986). "The Burning of Wildgoose Lodge: A Selection of Documents". Journal of the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society. 21 (2): 117–147. doi:10.2307/27729616. ISSN 0070-1327. JSTOR 27729616.
  38. ^ Bosworth 1987, pp. 26–27.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]