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The mind of an arsonist is a locked box

From the air, all Detective Adam Henry could see was black. Scorched earth in all directions. It was February 10, 2009. Three days earlier, the worst forest fires in Australian living memory had raged in the southern state of Victoria, killing 173 people and razing 1,100,000 acres. In a police helicopter, Henry, of the Arson and Explosives Squad, sat next to a crime scene photographer as they hovered over dead wild and farm animals, surviving cattle wandering the roads destroyed by debris, eating the remains of greenery.

The fire, in the southeast of the state, started at the edge of a eucalyptus plantation before spreading for miles through farmland and forest. He seemed to have been deliberately enlightened.

The detective directed the photographer to every rectangle of scorched earth that needed to be documented.

Some of the houses where there were deaths appear to have been peeled. A stripped roof of one location revealed an ash plane. The spaces in which a family had slept, ate and washed were outlined in black and white. From one angle, the pieces may have been the chambers of the heart. It was a mental exercise to see all this horror and not keep asking, almost like a tic: Why? Who?

He had been trained to think about motivation first – why someone had done something, who that someone was before. So was it a vendetta? Was it random? Did the arsonist live nearby? Or someone the arsonist was targeting? Was it an act of revenge? And why the plantation? Two fires, three hundred feet apart, had been lit. Eucalyptus oil, acting as a propellant, meant the flames quickly combined, creating a monster. Was it for the thrill, the power? Was it psychosis?

Detective Henry knew that in Australia only 1% of bushfire arsonists had been arrested. As a result, the arson was a felony that even the Arson Department understood relatively little about.

In the mid-twentieth century, pyromania was defined according to the 1839 Treatise on the medical jurisprudence of madness to be “a morbid propensity to arson, where the mind, although otherwise sane, is carried by an unseen power to commit that crime which is now generally recognized as a distinct form of madness.”

However, in the Bible’s 75-year history of mental health, The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM), the classification of pyromania had fallen in and out of fashion and the pages of the various editions. Today, among the multitude of people who deliberately start fires, only a few are considered to have the all-consuming “fascination, curiosity and attraction to fire” of the arsonist allied to the “pleasure and relief in the fire”. fire”. The behavior is now thought to be best explained by the DSM’s section on disruptive impulse control and conduct disorders. An individual’s inclination towards antisocial and an insane lack of restraint.

Over the years, various organizations have attempted to establish criteria for profiling firefighters. But most international studies focus on the deliberate lighting of homes, cars, and buildings, rather than wildfires, the magnitude of which is difficult to calculate (although in the United States, the Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Standards and Technology estimate that half a million wildfires are deliberately started each year, causing approximately $ 3 billion in damage.)

Arson was not an exotic crime; it emerged from the same set of dysfunctions and disadvantages as most other crimes.

Like the west coast of the United States, southern Australia is one of the most fire-prone places on the planet. Indigenous Australians have managed this pyrophilic ecology to their own advantage. But among European settlers, the fire-hungry Australian trees created a sub-community of destructive arsonists. For generations it had been some sort of open secret. In many country towns there was someone who seemed to take a ride every summer, just as the northerly winds blew from the central desert of Australia. Fifty percent of the country’s wildfires were deemed to be started in a malicious or suspicious manner. And the area the helicopter flew over, called the Latrobe Valley, was designated a “hot zone” because of the very high rate of deliberately ignited fires.

Whenever the helicopter changed direction, the detective saw the silhouette of one or more of the valley’s huge coal-fired power plants rise from the ground. This region had the largest deposits of lignite in the world, but little benefit went to the community. Lives affected by high levels of unemployment, intergenerational dependence on well-being, child abuse and neglect lived in small towns on the edge of eucalyptus forest. Sometimes the result was combustion. Two summers earlier, for example, a 29-year-old woman and her 15-year-old son were caught lighting fires together on a bush road while her six other children waited in the car.

Detective Adam Henry knew the basic assumptions of the FBI and various other profiling systems and was aware that some were quite complicated. An important model used this equation to explain the behavior: FIRE-SETTING = G1 + G2 + E, WHERE [E = C + CF + D1 + D2 + D3 + F1 + F2 + F3 + REX + RIN].

What the sum tended to find was that the firefighters were mostly men; they were generally unemployed or had complicated work histories; they were likely to have a disadvantaged social history, often with a history of pathology, drug addiction and physical abuse; and many exhibited poor social or interpersonal skills. This was a plausible profile, but hardly different from that of many non-arson criminals. In other words, the arson attack was not an exotic crime; it emerged from the same set of dysfunctions and disadvantages as most other crimes. And also, in an area like this, the equation described a high proportion of the community.

Five days after the fire, Detective Henry and two colleagues from the arson team traveled to a small coal town near where the fire was started to arrest a 39-year-old man named Brendan Sokaluk .

Sokaluk, who was pushing a pram full of newspapers, was halfway through his paper round. He supplemented his disability pension by delivering this local newspaper, for five cents a copy, and collecting scrap metal. He would collect tips and unofficial dumps from the trash he would take home, and what he couldn’t sell he sometimes burned. His neighbors later reported that they overheard him listening to episodes of Bob the Builder or Thomas the Tank Engine amid sweltering poisonous smoke.

“I didn’t light any fires,” he told detectives who had come to pick him up.

Back at the regional police headquarters, the arson team prepared their interview questions. Sokaluk had called to report the fire to emergency services within minutes of it igniting, and had dragged into the fray as firefighters desperately tried to evacuate people living nearby. A few days later, he then electronically submitted a false report to Crime Stoppers, claiming to have seen “a bad man” start the fire.

By the age of 19, he told Detective Henry, he had been a volunteer firefighter himself, before being “harassed” and forced to leave. It interested the detective. While statistically it is rare for firefighters to deliberately start fires, it is common for arsonists to be firefighters. In small Australian towns, volunteering to fight the local flames offers camaraderie and status. It’s a liaison and adrenaline-pumping service that politicians and the media turn some of these ranks into heroes for. In this case, however, being rejected by the local association of firefighters had engendered a fatal grudge.

Sokaluk made a partial confession. He claimed to have dropped ashes from cigarettes which started a fire.

The next morning, he led the detectives to where he claimed it had happened. A site near where forensic chemists located the source of the fire.

Around him, the eucalyptus trees were charred, their canopies the color of rust.

“It was green back then,” he said in a neutral tone. “Greener. Everything is on fire now.

Later that day, Sokaluk was put in a police van and driven from the Latrobe Valley to Melbourne Assessment Prison, including for his own protection. The fire he seemed to have started was still burning behind him and the community wanted revenge. As the van left its hometown, it passed Hazelwood Power Station, the dirtiest coal-fired power station in the OECD. From the row of 450-foot chimney towers came barely regulated carbon emissions. This fine brown smoke may be working in tandem with this strange man to remake the world with fire.

Extract of The arsonist by Chloe Hooper, printed with permission from Seven Stories Press.

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