Fire investigators can often determine the source of a fire at a crime scene -- but for psychologists and mental health experts, the reasons that led a person to commit a crime with fire are far deeper.
Forensic psychologist Lawrence Maile said emotional distress is one common reason behind arsonists' behavior.
“The emotional consequences of being distressed is often that you think (of) yourself first, and not really necessarily in a negative way, but you think about your problems first because they really are the ones that are present for you," Maile said.
Maile says fire crimes may be rising in Alaska along with rising economic and personal stress levels. For many individuals, those stresses in conjunction make them less likely to think about the consequences of their actions -- something Maile says is true for all crimes.
Maile said when examining the mind of an arsonist, he must first determine whether that person poses an immediate risk.
“A person in any situation cannot leave the office who we believe is in imminent risk," Maile said. "In the longer term perspective we try to see what the antecedents, were and if we can intervene with those and diminish the probability over the long term (so) that they're not going to be involved in arson in the future.”
Although someone may intentionally set a fire in a criminal manner, Maile says the typical arsonist hasn't spent much time contemplating the magnitude or criminal implications of such an act.
"I think people often underestimated what the impact is going to be -- as an example, they may have an argument and start somebody's things on fire not realizing that the whole building may burn down, that there may still be people in there," Maile said. "So they don't tend to think through the consequences well."
While simple arguments and overall mental health issues can both lead to arson, another common instigator experts see in Alaska is alcohol.
“With a lot of criminal behavior in Alaska, probably the primary factor involved is alcohol -- it's kind of the worm in the apple for Alaskans," Maile said. "People become intoxicated and act impulsively, and that sort of probably is the most significant theme among older people, older adolescents and adults in terms of starting fire.”
Maile has been seeing patients for more than two decades, and he's recently seen an increase in those who have committed arson.
“I would say there's been a significant uptick over the last several years,” Maile said.
According to the Anchorage Fire Department, arson cases have nearly doubled. AFD said there were 25 cases in 2012, up from 13 cases in 2010.
It's not just adults who are committing crimes with fire. Fire Safety Specialist Nikki Pereira has also seen an increase in cases involving children.
“We’re looking for the holes in a child's education about fire and general risk taking. As well as any family issues that we might need to help with," said Pereira.
In less than a decade, Pereira has worked with more than 700 children in the Anchorage area who have used fire in what authorities call "a dangerous way." Each child was referred to the Fire Stoppers Program for additional education.
“Some kids are misusing fire just because they think it's fun and they've done it a time or two. They haven't gotten caught and nothing bad has happened,” Pereira said.
Fire officials hope to bring renewed attention to the issue as arson statistics are on the rise. AFD and law enforcement officials say no matter the reason for intentionally setting a fire, the consequences can be severe.
Contact Mallory Peebles