This is a guest article by Mannie Barling.

The Santa Ana winds are blowing.  Red flag warnings are out.  And Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico are bracing themselves for possible wildfires that endanger homes, structures and National Parks.  At times it seems like fires are a natural disaster that rivals tornadoes and hurricanes.  But, they are not.  Fires are rarely caused by nature and the damages they cause are usually intentional or callously negligent.


For example, in Los Angeles, 24-year-old Harry Burkhart has been charged with 37 counts of arson in connection with 52 fires in and around the Hollywood area.  He was reportedly angry about his mother’s imminent deportation to Germany on 19 counts of fraud.

Not surprisingly, a psychiatrist in Vancouver, Canada told CNN that Burkhart suffered from severe mental illness including “autism, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.”  This is the classic description of the mental state of an arsonist.  They are not people you would have lunch with so it is hard to get help in locating them.  Generally, they are social rejects who speak to no one.

Starting fires is the third oldest crime behind homicide and theft.  In many instances fires are started to hide the other two crimes.  One need not look any further than the huge investment in fire departments, manpower and the machinery needed to fight fires.  But for purposes of this article, the criminal aspects are only in play.

At Common Law, arson is defined as a crime of intentionally burning a house, the dwelling of another or any other structure.  The perpetrators range from the mentally ill to store owners hoping to get insurance proceeds.  Generally, arson for profit is a cold calculated strategy that drips with premeditation.


Historically, arson meant just the burning of a house.  Modern legislation has extended the definition of arson to include the burning or exploding of commercial and public buildings — such as restaurants and schools — and structures — such as bridges.  Even the expansion of existing laws and stiffer penalties have not slowed the number of arson crimes in the U.S.

In many states, the act of burning any part of an insured dwelling, regardless of whether it belongs to another, constitutes arson if it is done with an intent to defraud the insurer.  The common law rule that the property burned must belong to another person has been completely eliminated by statute.

A death resulting from arson is murder as part of the felony murder rule which includes burglary, arson, robbery, rape and mayhem.  Most arson laws state that when a death occurs during the crime of arson, the requisite premeditated intent necessary for first degree murder is inferred by statute.

To prove arson there must be evidence of a burning and evidence that a criminal act or gross negligence caused the fire.  Absent a statutory description of the conduct required for arson, the conduct must be malicious, and not accidental.  Malice does not mean ill will.  Intentional or outrageously reckless conduct is sufficient to constitute malice.  Motive, on the other hand, is not an essential element of arson.

Some states divide arson into degrees, depending on the value of the property and whether the crime was committed in the day or night.  For example, the burning of any structure with an intent to defraud an insurer thereof is third-degree arson unless someone is injured or dies.  A few statutes vary the degree of the crime according to the criminal intent of the accused.

Arson was punishable by death under the common law.  Presently, it is classified as a felony in most states, punishable by either imprisonment or death.  Arson committed intentionally will result in a longer prison sentence than if it was done recklessly or negligently.  This assumes that the arsonist is caught and prosecuted.

A typical example is the Station Fire in Southern California in 2009, which burned 160,577 acres (251 square miles), 209 structures destroyed, including 89 homes, that resulted in the deaths of two firefighters.  To date, no one has been charged in that crime despite a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.  But since arsonists are so antisocial and reclusive, rewards are rarely effective in apprehending them.

The 1993 Malibu fire, which killed three and caused $375 million in damage, and the 1994 Laguna Beach fire, which destroyed 441 homes and left $528 million in damage, are also unsolved.  The rewards offered had no impact on apprehension either.

Smaller fires are much easier to investigate because of potential motives attached to the property owner, possible angry tenants and even the property owner’s enemies.  These fires can be started out of revenge, insurance fraud or murder for hire.  Certainly, organized crime saw arson as a way to solve many of their problems ranging from businesses losing money to eliminating competition leaving little or not evidence.

But organized crime is not the only group who has seen arson as a business savior.  Our courts are littered with cases and our jails full of people who tried to collect insurance proceeds for fires when their businesses were failing.  There are so many ways to start insurance fires including hiring others to do the dirty work that it has become a cottage industry for organized crime over the last century.

On Barling and Barrett this week, we will address the issues of arson as a tool of organized crime and the huge cost to Americans from wildfires set by mentally ill pyromaniacs that haunt our society much like serial killers.  Be ready for a startlingly different insight into arson from those who have seen it done for a living.

Mannie Barling is an Attorney, Author, Business Adviser and Voting Member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.  Mannie is also the co-host of Barling & Barrett – Criminal or Civil with Simon Barrett, heard on on Sunday afternoons at 4 PM EST, 1 PM PST.

Mannie Barling is the co-author with Ashley F. Brooks of the award winning books – Arthritis, Inflammation, Gout, Crohn’s, IBD and IBS (Books and Authors 2010 Best Books in the Health, Diet & Reference Categories); Mannie’s Diet and Enzyme Formula (Blogger News Net 2010 Best Health And Nutrition Book Award winner); It’s Not Your Fault; and The Food Revolution Papers  –  available at, Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and other booksellers around the world.

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