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Firesetting Behaviors


 The Pennsylvania State University- College of Medicine

July 2003


  1. Normal adult fire behavior is the result of appropriate, supervised childhood:
  2. Fire interest: 3-5yo
  3. Fireplay: 5-9yo
  4. Firesetting: >10yo
  5. Psychosocial factors such as deficits in emotional function, dysfunctional family environment, and significant life stressors can lead to inappropriate unsupervised fireplay and eventually pathologic firesetting.
  6. Pathologic firesetting: >2 fire starts in at least one 6 month period
  7. Unsupervised fireplay vs pathologic firesetting


  1. Epidemiology: Nationally compiled fire department statistics from 1998
  2. 1/2 to 2/3 of all arsons are set by juveniles
  3. 6,215 deaths, 30,800 injuries attributable to fires set by juveniles
  4. 100 million dollars in fire fighting and court costs to local government
  5. 11 billion dollars in property damage


  1. Profile of a juvenile pathological firesetter
  2. Male:female = 10:1
  3. Average age = 8yo
  4. Varied socioeconomic background
  5. Single parent household or household with marital discord
  6. Normal intelligence but higher rate of learning disabilities
  7. Likely one parent with at least one psychiatric diagnosis, commonly a mood disorder


  1. Categorization of juvenile firesetters
  2. Psychoanalytic model: (Freud 1932) Focuses on firesetting in the context of psychosexual development.
  3. Risk of recidivism model: (Kolko and Kazdin 1986) Statistically based, focuses on risk factors for repeat firesetting.
  4. Firesetting secondary to antisocial personality d/o or conduct d/o: (Sakheim 1985; Jacobson 1985)
  5. Danger hierarchy model: (Pinsonneault 1991) Grouping with focus on therapy
  • Curiosity firesetters
  • Crisis firesetters
  • Delinquent firesetters
  • Pathological firesetters
  1. Organic vs. functional causes for firesetting
  • Organic: Klinefelter’s syndrome, epilepsy, CNS malignancies, HIV dementia, metabolic d/o
  • Functional: Conduct d/o, ADHD, Schizophrenia, Mental retardation


  1. Treatment: according to Pinsonneault’s danger hierarchy model
  2. Curiosity firesetters: non-punitive fire safety education in entertaining format
  3. Crisis firesetters: non-punitive fire safety education with focus on seriousness of act and potential consequences. If a crisis firesetter recidivates then cognitive emotion psychotherapy by a trained therapist.
  4. Delinquent firesetters: Law enforcement taught course presenting graphic images of burn victims and visits to burn clinic. Parents and children should be made aware of financial penalties of arson.
  5. Pathological firesetters: Inpatient psychiatric treatment with behavioral modification and pharmacological treatment.



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Franklin GA. Pucci PS. Arbabi S. Brandt MM. Wahl WL. Taheri PA. Decreased juvenile arson and firesetting recidivism after implementation of a multidisciplinary prevention program. Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care. 53(2):260-4; discussion 264-6, 2002 Aug.

Kolko DJ. Day BT. Bridge JA. Kazdin AE. Two-year prediction of children’s firesetting in clinically referred and nonreferred samples. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines. 42(3):371-80, 2001 Mar.

Kolko DJ. Efficacy of cognitive-behavioral treatment and fire safety education for children who set fires: initial and follow-up outcomes. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines. 42(3):359-69, 2001 Mar

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Slavkin ML. Enuresis, firesetting, and cruelty to animals: does the ego triad show predictive validity?. Adolescence. 36

Wheaton S. Personal accounts: memoirs of a compulsive firesetter. Psychiatric Services. 52(8):1035-6, 2001 Aug.

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