Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Firesetting motivation

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Firesetting and motivation:
What motivates firesetting?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Fires can devastate properties and cost lives.

Every hour of every day at least one deliberate fire is lit in Australia (Doley, 2003). Firesetting is associated with significant property loss, emotional trauma and loss of life. Researchers across the UK, USA and Australia have been exploring the motivations behind deliberate firesetting since at least the early 1800s (Tyler & Gannon, 2012). Understanding why people commit dangerous and antisocial acts is important, as it contributes to finding perpetrators, applying interventions and preventing future acts (Willis, 2004). The motives for deliberate firesetting are wide-ranging and complex. Often there are multiple motives present. Firesetting usually occurs in secret and it is hard for researchers to collect data (Willis, 2004). Only those who have been apprehended are able to be studied, potentially biasing results towards one type of firesetter (Willis, 2004). For example, the finding that many arsonists are motivated by revenge could be indicative of all firesetters, or simply reflect the fact that people in a heightened emotional state who have an identifiable relationship with the victim are more likely to be caught (Willis, 2004). Most arsonists are not apprehended (Willis, 2004). The following is an exploration of the theories and motives for firesetting uncovered so far, as identified by researchers.

Theoretical perspectives on firesetting motivations[edit | edit source]

“The motives associated with fire setting are multiple, overlapping, and often disguised under a façade of distorted and pathological behaviour.”
FBI Behavioural Science Unit

Historical perspectives[edit | edit source]

Early German writers theorised that pubescent mentally disordered girls who lived in rural areas and had abnormal psychosexual development and menstrual difficulties were primarily responsible for firesetting (Tyler & Gannon, 2012). Disturbed psychosexual development and reproductive mental problems at puberty were thought to cause the behaviour. Modern theories have evolved from this point and are now very different with a large evidence base.

Cognitive perspectives[edit | edit source]

Psychoanalytic theory[edit | edit source]

A traditional framework used to explain firesetting is the psychodynamic persepective. In 1932 Freud wrote The Acquisition of Fire in which he aligned fire with male sexual function. Since then a number of theorists have concentrated on sexual aspects of firesetting, attributing symbolic meaning to the passion of fire and the role of the fireman taming the fire with his hose (Mavromatis, 2000). Pathological firesetting was thought to be a result of sexual disturbance, urinary malfunction, and a fixation at the phallic stage of psychosexual development (Mavromatis, 2000; Gold, 1962, in Willis, 2004). The theory developed to portray firesetting as the result of repressed, denied and projected aggression towards the parent of the opposite sex (Sakheim et al., 1991). The psychodynamic explanation of firesetting has received poor empirical support (Doley, 2003).

Displaced aggression hypothesis[edit | edit source]

The displaced aggression hypothesis postulates that when faced with provocation without the freedom to retaliate, people may turn their aggression to other available targets (Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000). Research on the phenomenon was sparked in 1939 but the concept quickly declined in popularity, receiving criticism for a lack of reliable empirical evidence. However a meta-analytic study conducted in 2000 found sufficient evidence to justify interest in the theory (Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000).

Researchers studying firesetters have found subjects commonly experienced difficult childhoods. It has been noted that many firesetters experienced inconsistent, absent or neglectful caretakers, abuse, and alcoholism (Mavromitis, 2000; Tyler & Gannon, 2012). The adverse circumstances described are characterised by mistreatment by authority figures. The displaced aggression hypothesis suggests that when the subject of provocation is unavailable or there is an imbalance of power, aggression may be directed towards alternative targets (Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000). Children may be unable to directly confront the subject of their aggressive urges due to expectation of unpleasant or unsafe consequences. Firesetting functions as a replacement target for aggression when the original target is not able to be confronted (Kolko, Kazdin & Meyer, 1985). Those who are able to directly express anger are not in need of firesetting as an outlet (Mavromitis, 2000).

It has also been suggested that firesetters are unable to directly address targets of aggression due to personality traits (Tyler & Gannon, 2012). They may lack interpersonal skills and transfer their feelings of hostility away from the original target to a substitute target. Some researchers theorise that firesetters may be unable to express aggression in an interpersonally appropriate manner (Kolko, Kazdin & Meyer, 1985). They resort to arson as a means of self-expression without interpersonal confrontation, thus gaining control.

One study reported that arsonists may display lower levels of interpersonal aggression, though revenge and jealousy were the still primary motives of this sample (Jackson et al., 1987, in Tyler & Gannon, 2012). Another found that firesetters were less capable of outwardly displaying anger compared to non-firesetting controls (Mavromitis, 2000). Adult firesetters often experience unsatisfying interpersonal lives characterised by unstable relationships with family, insecure sexual relationships and sexual identities, and sexual disfunction (Tyler & Gannon, 2012). Poor relationships combined with an inability to directly express aggression provides a fitting setting for the displaced aggression hypothesis.

Female firesetters have been found to display more passivity, neuroticism and lower levels of self-worth than female controls, but did not show higher levels of aggression (Noblett & Nelson, 2001, in Gannon, 2010). Another study noted a high level of past violent convictions among female prisoners, demonstrating that many female firesetters have no trouble expressing aggression (Coid et al., 1999). Both studies have been used to debate the displaced aggression hypothesis in relation to female firesetters.

Cognitive behavioural theories[edit | edit source]

Bandura’s social learning theory has been used to explain deliberate firesetting (Gannon, Ciardha, Doley & Alleyne, 2012). Various patterns of reinforcement and learning contingencies are thought to surround the act of firesetting. Firesetters may be rewarded directly by attention or vicariously through the sensory excitement of the fire (Seigel, 1957). Other theories such as functional analysis theory and dynamic behavioural theory use similar reinforcement/punishment processes to explain the development of firesetting motivations (Gannon et al., 2012).

Neurobiological perspectives[edit | edit source]

Pathological firesetting is considered to be biologically closely related to other impulse control and substance use disorders (Grant, Schreiber & Odlaug, 2013; Schmitz, 2005). Pyromania is classified in the DSM-5 under Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders (American Psychological Association, 2013). It is hypothesised that firesetting shares the same neuroanatomical reward pathways as a number of other aggressive and impulsive disorders in this category (Schmitz, 2005).

Metabolic or neurotransmitter abnormality may be related to pathological firesetting according to several case studies (Tyler & Gannon, 2012). In particular, a deficit in cerebrospinal fluid monamine metabolite has been identified in individuals with impulse control disorders such as pyromania and kleptomania (Tyler & Gannon, 2012). Low levels of 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycal and 5-HIAA have been found to be related to pyromania and kleptomania, although they may be related to impulse control disorders in general (Tyler & Gannon, 2012).

Deficits in these chemicals correlated with violent and aggressive behaviour in a landmark study of Finnish prisoners (Linnoila, 1984, as cited in Schmitz, 2005). Low levels of these chemicals indicates a low turnover of serotonin in the central nervous system, altering the ability of individuals to adequately inhibit impulsive and aggressive behaviour (Schmitz, 2005). Neurobiological studies allow researchers to find and potentially alter the parts of the human body that may regulate disruptive behaviours such as firesetting. A neurobiological view of pathological firesetting could explain why some individuals feel compelled to light fires without a clear motive (see Pyromania below).

Classes of firesetters[edit | edit source]

Research suggests there may be differences in motivations between different classes of firesetters. Groups divided by shared characteristics such as age, gender, and mental health status often express differing motivations.

Juvenile[edit | edit source]

Juvenile firesetting is a growing concern. Recent reports estimate that 20% of fires in Australia can be attributed to young firesetters (Dadds & Fraser, 2006). The subject has been extensively studied in the hope of reducing this troubling phenomenon.

It is thought that there is a strong relationship between firesetting and antisocial behaviour in children (Dadds & Fraser, 2006). This indicates that motivations for firesetting may be similar to a range of antisocial behaviours. Firesetting is associated with conduct problems, animal cruelty, hyperactivity and thrill-seeking among young males (Dadds & Fraser, 2006). Kolko, Kazdin & Meyer (1985) investigated whether the antisocial behaviours associated with firesetting were part of the diagnosis of conduct disorder, common among childhood firesetters. They found that firesetters with conduct disorder exhibited aggression and social skills deficits beyond those displayed by non-firesetters with conduct disorder. This could indicate that firesetting is a separate pathology to conduct disorder, or that firesetting is at the severe end of a spectrum of antisocial behaviours. Nevertheless, it is apparent that firesetting in children rarely occurs in isolation from other antisocial behaviours.

Figure 2. Availability of firesetting materials is a risk factor for juvenile firesetting (Barreto et al., 2004)

Antisocial behaviour is often linked to experience of trauma. There is high evidence of family disturbance apparent in childhood firesetting samples (Sakheim et al., 1991). This is similar to adult offenders (Tyler & Gannon, 2000). However, children may be influenced by a current need for a situation to change rather than adult pathology linked to disturbances during development. A common explanation of childhood firesetting motivations involves the ‘cry for help’ scenario where the firesetting is used to communicate distress (Barreto et al., 2004). This model has little empirical support but is often used to explain cases of firesetting by individuals with insecure home lives. The Displaced Aggression Hypothesis has been applied to juvenile firesetting more so than adult firesetting as there is often an imbalance of power in child-adult relationships, particularly under abusive circumstances (Kolko, Kazdin & Meyer, 1985). Motivational theories for juvenile firesetting often involve a desire to change difficult conditions.

Empirical evidence supports high levels of anger or curiosity as motivations for childhood firesetting (Barreto et al., 2004). Curiosity about fire may be related to emotional disturbances such as externalising, internalising, and exhibiting hostile and/or inappropriate sexual behaviour (Barreto et al., 2004). High levels of anger have been associated with fire involvement (e.g., match play) and fire knowledge (Barreto et al., 2004). ). Firesetters with emotion regulation difficulties may require psychological or psychiatric counselling (Kolko, Kazdin & Meyer, 1985).

Some theorists argue that curiosity about fire and fire-play is a common feature of the development of about 40% of children (Mavromitis, 2000). Young firesetters motivated by simple curiosity can often be encouraged to alter dangerous behaviours with fire safety education (Barreto et al., 2004). Identifying motivations behind firesetting can be beneficial when designing therapeutic interventions for firesetting children. Interventions combining behaviour modification and fire education can be effective (Dadds & Fraser, 2006).

Case Study #1

Freddy, 13, had grown up in a tumultuous environment. He lived with his mother, an angry, paranoid woman starved for affection in her own childhood. She used Freddy to fulfill her own troubled wishes for unconditional love and obedience. He spent time living with an older couple when his mother felt unable to parent. Freddy set a number of fires around his neighbourhood as part of a number of other antisocial behaviours, including truancy, running away and temper tantrums. He was apprehended and spent time in a locked psychiatric facility. The clinical opinion of Freddy’s motives were that he used firesetting as a cry for help, to attract the attention of the father-like firefighting figures, to express his aggression and frustration, and to manipulate the adults around him. (Siegel, 1957)

Psychological factors[edit | edit source]

Rational motivations[edit | edit source]

Motivations for firesetting can be divided into rational and pathological thought processes. It is thought that there is no connection between the use of fire for profit (rational) and pathological firesetting (Mavromatis, 2000).

Firesetting in some cases can be a result of rational mental processes. In these situations the fire directly or indirectly advantages the culprit. For example, insurance fraud can be committed by burning down a property and falsely claiming an insurance payout. In this circumstance relief from financial pressure may be the motivation for firesetting. Other scenarios in which firesetting may motivated by logical thought processes include criminal activity, for example destroying evidence of a crime; indirect financial gain, for example burning down a competitor’s business; for ideological reasons such as setting alight an abortion clinic; to force relocation to a better public housing site, or to vandalise property (Mavromitis, 2000; Rix, 1994).

Case Study #2

An explosion destroyed a convenience store and a block of apartments in Sydney on September 4, 2014. The owner of the store was charged with using an accelerant to start the fire in his shop. Three people sleeping in the apartments above the store died in the fire, including a mother and her baby. Others jumped to safety out the window. The shop owner was trapped under a fridge in the explosion and was rescued by firefighters. Police allege that he set the fire for financial gain as the business was struggling and he was owed $9000 rent, some of it 7 months overdue. He had recently increased his insurance coverage in preparation for the blast.

(7 News, 2014)

Watch news coverage

Pathological motivations[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. A burning car.[explain?]

Pathological firesetting is more complex and has received much clinical and research attention. It can be defined as firesetting due to irrational thought processes (Rider, 1980). Firesetting has long been associated with the mentally ill (Tyler & Gannon, 2012). Mental illness is thought to be extremely prevalent among firesetting populations, with some reports asserting that 90% of arsonists have histories of mental health issues (Ritchie & Huff, 1999, in Tyler & Gannon, 2012). However, the majority of apprehended firesetters are not diagnosed with psychiatric conditions (Tyler & Gannon, 2012). It is not thought that there is a causal relationship between mental illness and firesetting, however poor mental health interacts with other vulnerabilities and is considered a risk factor for firesetting (Ducat, Ogloff & McEwan, 2013).

A recent 9-year study of every offender convicted of fire offenses in Victoria, Australia compared rates of mental illness in this group to a matched community sample and a group of non-firesetting offenders (Ducat et al., 2013). It was found that 37% of firesetters had a psychiatric history, compared to 29.3% of non-firesetting offenders and 8.7% of the community sample. This implies that while mental illness does not explain all firesetting behaviour, it is significantly more prevalent amongst firesetters than other samples.

Firesetting can occur as part of a range of mental disorders as defined by the DSM-5, including:

Motives for mentally disordered firesetters are complex and multi-layered. Many are similar to non-mentally disordered firesetters, although some motives such as ‘communicative arson’ are thought to be unique to firesetters experiencing mental disturbances (Tyler & Gannon, 2012). Communicative arson is a term used to describe fires set to convey a message such as anger or jealousy. Motivations such as vandalism are much more common in non-mentally disordered offenders (Tyler & Gannon, 2012).

In [what?]literature, the most common conditions attributed to mentally disordered firesetters are schizophrenia, with prevalence ranging from 8 to 30%, and personality disorder, ranging from 25 to 90% (Tyler & Gannon, 2010). Alcohol use by mentally disordered firesetters is also extremely prevalent (Tyler & Gannon, 2012).

Motives frequently found in the literature on mentally disordered firesetters include[factual?]:

  • Revenge (less common among psychotic illnesses)
  • Excitement
  • Attention seeking/cry for help
  • Suicide attempt
  • Communicative arson
  • Vandalism
  • Hallucinations/delusions

Pathological motivations are also present among firesetters who are not diagnosed with a mental disorder. Revenge is thought to be the most common pathological motivation for firesetting, regardless of mental status (Rider, 1980; Tyler & Gannon, 2012). Targets for revenge were most commonly residential properties belonging to sexual partners, sexual rivals, current/past employers, and others whom the firesetter believes has spurned them (Willis, 2004). Other common motivations present among firesetters not diagnosed with mental disorders include excitement, jealousy, vanity and prejudice (Mavromatis, 2000).

An interesting phenomenon in this category is the firesetter motivated by achieving hero status (Willis, 2004; Mavromatis, 2000; Icove & Estepp, 1987). In this scenario a person set a fire and then aided in the discovery and extinguishing of the fire. Often the perpetrators were volunteer firefighters or community-minded individuals with an interest in gaining prestige.

Case Study #3
Figure 4. A house destroyed by Orr in 1990.

John Orr is perhaps one of the most notorious and prolific arsonists known to be part of the fire service. He was a fire captain and chief arson investigator in Southern California. Over roughly 8 years Orr set up to 2000 fires that caused millions of dollars of damage. In 1984 he set fire to a homewares store, deliberately designing the blaze to cause maximum damage. The fire killed four people, including a 2-year-old boy. Orr investigated the blaze himself and convinced fire officials that the inferno was deliberately lit. After three more years, 8 store fires, and a fire that consumed 64 homes, Orr was arrested. A key factor contributing to his prosecution was a novel Orr had written about an arson investigator who led a double life as an arsonist. The book described details about the fires that were not public knowledge. Orr was motivated by a need to be recognised and to transcend the failures in his life. Through investigating high-profile arson cases, Orr achieved the attention he craved.

Pyromania[edit | edit source]

Pyromania involves deliberately setting fires in order to release inner tension. It is related to impulse control disorders such as kleptomania (American Psychological Association, 2013). Once referred to as ‘motiveless’ firesetting due to the apparent inability of offenders to express a reason (Rider, 1980), the existence of pyromania is now debated (Doley, 2013). Some studies have found no evidence of the condition (Gannon, 2010). Many others find very low rates of true pyromania and it is rarely diagnosed by psychiatrists (Geller, McDermeit & Brown, 1997; Mavromatis, 2000). The DSM-5 notes that pyromania is very rare. It is a convenient defence for many arsonists facing legal charges as it removes responsibility for the crime (Mavromatis, 2000). Within the legal system it rests on the concept of ‘irresistible impulse’, an idea difficult to prove and frequently contested (Mavromatis, 2000).

Pyromania-type motivations – enjoyment, interest, curiosity and excitement incited by fire – are considered to be genuine phenomena (Mavromatis, 2000; Willis, 2004). Firesetters who express excitement as a motivation are more likely to be repeat offenders. This is potentially an identifying risk factor that could indicate treatment need (Gannon, 2010).

Sexual motivations for firesetting are often included in this category. Though once a popular theory originating in psychoanalytic traditions, firesetting to gratify sexual urges is now considered rare (Doley, 2013).

Case Study #4

Jo, a 20-year-old homeless male, was admitted to a psychiatric ward following reports that he had doused people with lighter fluid and laughed while setting them on fire. He had a history of fire starting and fit the DSM-IV criteria for pyromania. He reported severe cognitive deficits, and occasional delusions and hallucinations unrelated to firesetting. He showed little interest in anything until the subject of fire was brought up, when he would become animated and excited. He was treated with an antipsychotic medication and after 5 months his symptoms of psychosis and pyromania were greatly improved. Psycho-pharmacological treatment was theorised to have improved his social-adaptive functioning and reduced aggression. (Parks et al., 2005)

Gender[edit | edit source]

Research suggests there are minor differences in motivations for firesetting between males and females. Data indicates that there are many more males are convicted of fire-related crimes than females (Gannon, 2010). In fact some researchers estimate the proportion of female firesetters to be as low as 4%, while others estimate up to 28% (Gannon, 2010).

Females are thought to exhibit different psychopathology to males, with higher levels of psychosis and depression and lower levels of antisocial behaviour (Gannon, 2010). A sample of Australian children revealed that girls were more likely to experience anxiety and depression, where males showed more hyperactivity, cruelty to animals and thrill seeking (Dadds & Fraser, 2006). In addition pyromania is considered less common in females (APA, 2013). A recent study found lower levels of pyromania-type motivations in females (13.2%) than males (32.6%) (Dickens et al., 2007, in Gannon, 2010). Sexual motivations for firesetting are considered a male phenomenon; females are also unlikely to be motivated by crime concealment, profit, or a desire to take part in firefighting activities (Icove & Estepp, 1987; Lewis & Yarnell, 1951, in Gannon, 2010).

Both genders show similarly disturbed childhoods and high levels of personality disorders (Dadds & Fraser, 2006; Gannon, 2010). All endorsed the motivations of excitement, vandalism and revenge (Icove & Estepp, 1987).

Motives more common in females Motives more common in males
Cry for help

Need for different public housing

Crime concealment


Desire to join in firefighting

Sexual motives

Table 1. Motives that occur more frequently by gender.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Knowledge of firesetting motivations is of huge practical significance to individuals and the community. Understanding why people light fires can help identify firesetters before damage occurs. This is particularly relevant to children as they are often in a position where warning signs and risk factors can be identified by supervising adults (Barreto et al., 2004). Once a firesetter has been identified, knowledge of motivation can inform treatment decisions. For instance, a child motivated by displaced aggression may benefit from interpersonal skills training; an impulsive firesetter may benefit from impulse-control treatments. Identifying the motives can also help pinpoint those at risk of recidivism: for example firesetters motivated by excitement are more likely to re-offend than those motivated by revenge (Gannon, 2010). Understanding the motivations behind firesetting is an immense and difficult task for researchers. However, it is of vital importance to protect the community and individuals. Future research will continue to uncover more about the elusive firesetter and further inform the role professionals and the community can play in reducing the harm caused by deliberately lit fires.

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See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.

Arson investigator-novelist is charged with setting fires. (1991, December 20). The New York Times. Retrieved from

Barreto, S. J., Boekamp, J. R., Armstrong, L. M., & Gillen, P. (2004). Community-based interventions for juvenile firestarters: A brief family-centered model. Psychological Services, 1(2), p.158-168. doi: 10.1037/1541-1559.1.2.158

Coid, J., Wilkins, J., & Coid, B. (1999). Fire-setting, pyromania and self-mutilation in female remanded prisoners. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, 10(1), p.119-130. doi: 10.1080/09585189902143

Dadds, M. R., & Fraser, J. A. (2006). Fire interest, fire setting and psychopathology in Australian children: A normative study. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40(6-7), p.581-586. doi: 10.1111/j/1440-1614.2006.01842.x

Doley, R. (2003). Pyromania: Fact or fiction? British Journal of Crimonology, 43(4), p.797-807. doi: 10.1093/bjc/43.4.797

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Gannon, T. A. (2010). Female arsonists: Key features, psychopathologies, and treatment needs. Psychiatry, 73(2), p.173-189. doi: 10.1521/psyc.2010.73.2.173

Gannon, T. A., Ciardha, C., Ó., Doley, R. M., & Alleyne, E. (2012). The Multi-Trajectory Theory of Adult Firesetting (M-TTAF). Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 17(2), p.107-121. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2011.08.001

Geller, J. L., McDermeit, M., & Brown, J. M. (1997). Pyromania? What does it mean? Journal of Forensic Sciences, 42(6), p.1052-1057. Retrieved from

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Icove, D. J., & Estepp, M. H. (1987). Motive-based offender profiles of arson and fire-related crimes. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 56(4), p.17-23. Retrieved from

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Kolko, D. J., Kazdin, A. E., & Meyer, E. C. (1985). Aggression and psychopathology in childhood firesetters: Parent and child reports. Journal of Counselling and Clinical Psychology, 53(3), p.377-385. Doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.53.3.377

Kolko, D. J., Kazdin, A. E., & Meyer, E. C. (1985). Aggression and psychopathology in childhood firesetters: Parent and child reports. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53(3), p.377-385. doi: 10.1037//0022-006X.53.3.377

Marcus-Newhall, A., Pedersen, W. C., Carlson, M., & Miller, N. (2000). Displaced aggression is alive and well: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), p.670-689. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.4.670

Mavromatis, M. (2000). Serial arson: Repetitive firesetting and pyromania. In Schlesinger, L. B. (Ed.), Serial Offenders: Current Thought, Recent Findings. Retrieved from

Parks, R. W., Green, R. D., Girgin, S., Hunter, M. D., Woodruff, P. W., & Spence, S. A. (2005). Response of pyromania to biological treatment in a homeless person. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 1(3), p.277-280. Retrieved from

Rider, A. O. (1980). The firesetter: A psychological profile (Part 1). FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 49(6), p.6-13. Retrieved from

Ritchie, E. C., & Huff, T. G. (1999). Psychiatric aspects of arsonists. Journal of Forensic Science, 44(4), p.733-740. Retrieved from

Rix, K. J. (1994). A psychiatric study of adult arsonists. Medicine, Science and the Law, 34(1), p.21-34. Retrieved from

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Store owner charged over Rozelle blast. (2014 September 23). 7 News. Retrieved from

Tyler, N., & Gannon, T. A. (2012). Explanations of firesetting in mentally disordered offenders: A review of the literature. Psychiatry, 75(2), p.150-166. doi: 10.1521/psyc.2012.75.2.150

Willis, M. (2004). Bushfire arson: A review of the literature. Research and Public Policy Series, No. 61. Australian Institute of Criminology. Retrieved from