After 33 years investigating wildfire arson, one thing has become crystal clear to Los Angeles County sheriffs Detective Ed Nordskog: “Wildfire arsonists are not like your average thug.”
“They are cowards, sneaking away after doing something while no one is looking,” said Nordskog, a nationally known expert who has handled more than 2,100 arson cases.
Nordskog hasnt reviewed the case against Brandon N. McGlover, 32, of Temecula, who is facing 15 felony counts for the Cranston fire that as of Friday had burned 11,500 acres near Idyllwild. However, he has interviewed enough firebugs to know what drives them.
For one thing, they are different from those who set fires in a city setting. Urban arsonists can be male or female, are often guided by greed or retaliation, usually suffer from mental illness and tend to be unemployed transients, Nordskog said.
However, wildfire arsonists are almost always exclusively men ranging in age from 18 to 30 who enjoy the outdoors, have jobs and set fires near where they live, he said.
“They also tend to have a more stable family life than the urban guys,” he said.
Race isnt a factor among wildland arsonists, who often are angry, frustrated or seeking excitement, Nordskog said.
Intentional wildfires also tend to happen like clockwork, with arsonists usually striking from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. when brush is at its driest. “Most serial arsonists dont have the intent to kill anyone,” Nordskog said.
But there are exceptions.
Raymond Lee Oyler remains on death row at San Quentin State Prison for setting the 2006 Esperanza Fire in a river wash near Cabazon west of Palm Springs that claimed the lives of five firefighters. The blaze consumed 41,173 acres, and the firefighters were killed when the wind shifted as they defended a home.
Also, one of Southern Californias most prolific serial arsonists, Harry Burkhart, a German national, was sentenced in March to more than 30 years in prison for 47 blazes. The fires were set beneath vehicles and near homes over five days in 2011 in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and West Hollywood.
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Burkhart was angered by his mothers legal trouble and went on an arson spree after she appeared in court, authorities said.
While Burkhart didnt cooperate with investigators, often wildfire arsonists who are caught are candid about their compulsion to burn.
“If you open up to them, they often open up to you,” he said. “The more you meet with these people, the more you find out the reason (they set fires). They are often confused about why they are doing it.”
There may be a physiological component to serial arson. “A lot of serial arsonists have brain injuries from traumatic accidents or sports injuries that affect impulse control,” Nordskog said. “Most also have fetal alcohol or drug syndrome.”
For some arsonists, setting a fire and then watching it burn — usually from a distance to avoid detection — is cathartic.
“Before a fire they are tense and jacked up,” Nordskog said. “When they light the fire they have an immediate euphoric release.”
Once in prison, wildland arsonists, due to their solitary nature, often dont get along with other inmates and tend to favor the guards, he said.
They also often receive relatively light sentences despite all the destruction they cause and the lives they endanger, Nordskog said. “The courts often dont give them lengthy sentences because most things that burn are of little value,” he said.