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ISSN: 2331-7582 (ONLINE)
Pyrophilia: A Need for Further Discussion
Jerrod Brown, Eric Hickey, Mario Hesse, Warren Maas, Dallas Drake, Michael Flanagan,
Samantha Lee, Hannah Brown, & Janae Olson
Consultant: Kathi Osmonson
Pyrophilia is an under researched form of paraphilia that involves heightened sexual arousal
associated with fire or fire-setting (Newton, 2006; Hickey, 2015). The potential for harm caused
by a person compelled to set fires to satisfy sexual cravings is theoretically greater than other
forms of paraphilia. Therefore, more research on the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of
pyrophilia may have significant societal benefits. The purpose of this article is to initiate a
conversation on the topic of pyrophilia. This article presents previously discussed parameters of
pyrophilia through a synthesis of peer-reviewed, clinical research publications. Moreover, case
studies further explored and highlighted common elements and critiques of pyrophilia. Finally,
the need for future research is discussed. Defining the term pyrophilia and correctly
conceptualizing it as a syndrome, diagnosis, or subtype of another diagnosis will aid the
development of best practices for assessment and treatment.
Diagnosing Paraphilic Disorders
Paraphilias are defined by ongoing and serious sexual fixation on anything other than
consensual sexual behavior with other human adults (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
These sexual fixations become the desired or preferred method for sexual activity. Paraphilias
can focus on acts and/or fantasies involving atypical objects, situations, or individuals (American
Psychiatric Association, 2013; Purcell & Arrigo, 2006). From window peeping and sex with
stuffed animals to sadistic rape. Paraphilias exist in both criminal and non-criminal forms.
Paraphilias are considered paraphilic disorders when they are potentially harmful,
distressing and debilitating to an individual, or when the focus of the desire is at risk of harm.
When diagnosing a paraphilic disorder, the existence of the paraphilia itself must first be
established. Second, the negative effects of it need to be apparent (American Psychiatric
Association, 2013). Paraphilias can co-occur and may relate to each other in some way.
Assessment of paraphilias may focus on the severity of the paraphilic desire or the severity of the
consequences of acting on such urges (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Assessments
will likely take into account the person’s psychological and social wellbeing that directly or
indirectly lead to paraphilia. Lastly, assessments often compare paraphilic desire to desires
Pyrophilia: A Need for Further Discussion 2 considered normal to measure the degree to which the paraphilia is preferred (American
Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Overall, the mere existence of a paraphilia does not necessarily require intervention. For
example, a foot fetish alone does not qualify as a criminal act. However, breaking into
someone’s home to engage in the act of sucking on someone’s toes while they are sleeping is a
criminal act. Today, hundreds of forms of paraphilia exist, some more bizarre and complicated
than others (Aggrawal, 2009).
Pyrophilia (also identified as fire fetishism, pyrolagnia, and sexual arson) is a rare and
complicated paraphilia involving intense sexual excitement associated with fire or fire-setting
behaviors (Newton, 2006). There has been considerable disagreement among professionals in
viewing pyrophilia as a form of paraphilia. The etiology of pyrophilia may be partially rooted in
unresolved childhood trauma and maladaptive coping behaviors (Purcell & Arrigo, 2006).
However, additional research is warranted to examine this possible relationship. In a study of
arsonists and persons with pyrophilia, Harris and Rice (1984) reported that fire setters described
themselves as less in control of their lives, and hypothesized that fire setting may be a way of
reasserting control. From a physiological viewpoint, pyrophilia may create an adrenaline rush
related to the risk-taking behavior. The sudden stimulation associated with setting fires may
reinforce the fire setting behavior as the individual experiences the recurring thrill, sexual
excitement and/or relief.
Horley and Bowlby (2011) suggested that fire setting is linked to serotonin dysfunction.
Serotonin is associated with well-being and happiness (Young, 2007). Schmitz (2005) noted that
pyromania might be conceptualized as the result of impulsive aggression traits linked to
dysfunctional serotonin neurotransmission. Thus, persons with less inhibitory control may be
more inclined to act out impulsively, such as those noted in Pyromania and Intermittent
Explosive Disorders. However, the relationship between pyrophilia and impulse control should
be further investigated through rigorous scientific study.
Like pyromania, pyrophilia involves deliberate, repeated fire setting and affective arousal
associated with the act (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Pyrophilia differs from
pyromania in its specific focus on fire setting as a sexually arousing act (Aggrawal, 2009).
Usually designated as a motivation subcategory of arson or fire setting, more research is needed
to understand this relationship (Quinsey, Chaplin, & Upfold, 1989). This distinction has
significant implications in terms of criminal investigations and treatment. The prevalence of
pyrophilia is not well known, and currently, much of the information about pyrophilia comes
directly from case studies.
Case Studies
Case studies are an essential component in the development of a comprehensive
understanding of pyrophilia, highlighting instances in which offenders engaged in some form of
sexualized behavior immediately before, during, or after setting a fire. Some individuals with
pyrophilia have admitted or attributed their deviant or criminal behavior to a sexual motivation.
One of the first case studies specifically labeled, pyrophilia, involved a 20-year-old male
engaged in arson as his primary way to attain sexual arousal and satisfaction during masturbation
(Lande, 1980). Another incident described a case of a 25-year-old married male with pyrophilia: (ISSN: 2331-7582 ONLINE) BEHAVIORAL HEALTH, VOLUME 2, NUMBER 2
Pyrophilia: A Need for Further Discussion 3 He used heat to give himself sexual excitement, and he reached a point where he could be
sexually aroused by just talking about fires or having his wife talk about burning things
(she reportedly resented having to do this). Clomipramine hydrochloride taken orally, 3
times daily, which he initially took for depression and obsessiveness, reportedly helped
reduce the time spent ruminating about fire by about 75%. However, this was
discontinued when he began to experience severe anticholinergic side effects. In any
case, there was no evidence of major depression during his stay on the unit, and all
aspects of his mental status were unremarkable (Litman, 1999, para. 5).
The man recalled fetching coal with his mother as a young boy and remembered
touching a stove to see how hot it was. Later in his late teens, he recalled sitting on a hot
stove after wrapping a pair of pants around one of his arms before setting fire to them.
He expressed masochistic fantasies of being forcibly and painfully set on fire by a
heterosexual partner and a sadistic mob (Litman, 1999, para. 5).
However, only a small number of individuals with pyrophilia are reported to experience sexual
fantasies of burning themselves alive. Balachandra and Swaminath (2002) highlighted a rare
case of a 29-year-old female arsonist with a fire fetish. The author’s noted:
…the young woman was sexually abused at age 8 and had a history of being cruel to
animals and setting small fires. She was known to have searched for specific places to
set fires (e.g., trash bins and recycling containers) and then she would hide while
watching them burn. After, she would return home and masturbate while thinking about
her fire setting. She recorded all of her more than 175 fire setting acts in a detailed
journal set. Psychiatrists described her motives as an outlet for expression of anger,
sexual motivation, and satisfaction. They further noted, that her intense preoccupation
with fire melded together with the tension and affective arousal that was relieved through
the act of setting the fires (pp. 487-488).
While some offenders become sexually aroused by watching fires, others find sexual excitement
in the mere act of participating in fire setting. There are also those who engage in both the act of
setting and observing the fire. Consider the case of Richard, a serial arsonist:
Richard spent several years in prison for serial arson and admits to setting hundreds of
fires. He set his first fire at age 7 but did not begin starting fires in earnest until age 12.
The flames and the firemen both sexually motivated him. Over the past few years he has
come to abandon that admission. Telling others that he is a serial arsonist is one thing
but admitting that he finds sexual gratification in setting fires he has learned draws
uncomfortable stares and probing questions. At the beginning of his fires-setting Richard
liked to visit fire stations, meet the firemen, and learn all he could about the fire
equipment and the fire district. He memorized the physical boundaries of each fire
district and often set two fires in a district to cause more personal excitement. He would
fantasize about directed the firefighters in their work. Richard collected a box full of
“souvenirs” from his 23 major fires and buried them. He has a long history of other
crimes including prostitution at 15, theft of a police car, fraud, sexual assault, burglary, (ISSN: 2331-7582 ONLINE) BEHAVIORAL HEALTH, VOLUME 2, NUMBER 2
Pyrophilia: A Need for Further Discussion 4 impersonation of a police officer, and assault. He started with trash fires and escalated to
burning down businesses at night. He never killed anyone, although several persons
needed to be evacuated from an apartment complex when a fire he set spread out of
His smiles mask anger and frustration at being marginalized by society. His father
abandoned the family when Richard was very young. At age five a neighbor raped him,
and the molestations and rapes continued for years. The perpetrator manipulated
Richard into compliance by threatening to harm a dog that lived with the man. The man
also inserted a barrel of a gun into Richard’s rectum and pulled the trigger, terrorizing
Richard. For many years Richard harbored anger toward his mother for not protecting
him from the neighbor and for not meeting his childhood emotional needs. (Since his
release from prison he now reports that he and his mother have drawn much closer.) At
age 14 he was raped by a 24-year-old male he met while making prank phone calls.
Richard’s mother discovered the two having sex and he fled with the man for three days
before returning home.
He claims his early diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic was incorrect. Richard
successfully completed three years of parole and stopped taking his medications. He has
frequently relocated and has great difficulty finding suitable employment. Once he does
find employment he seldom stays more than a few months. Boredom, a penchant for
deviance, and lack of social skills lead Richard to quit or be terminated from jobs. He has
not been caught in any criminal activity since his release in 2000. However, he continues
to harbor pathological attitudes and behaviors and still maintains his interest and
fantasies in fire but manages to keep them at bay. He likes to collect fire memorabilia
and admits to having urges to start another fire, especially when he becomes stressed. He
sometimes calls me just to talk or when he becomes anxious and starts fantasizing about
starting fires. His pathology points to his childhood victimization, poor socialization, and
inability to form meaningful attachments (Hickey, 2015, pp.145-14632).
Those who engage in the act of pyrophilia may also be fueled, like Richard, by intense emotions
of anger and rage. Juvenile fire-setters sometimes experience intense psychosocial conflicts,
having been victims of traumatic events before becoming offenders (Lowenstein, 1989; Lyons,
McClelland & Jordan, 2010). Robert Dale Segee killed an 8-year-old girl with a rock and then
went on to set many fires and strangled three people. He confessed to setting fire to the Ringling
Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1944, killing 169 people. Segee testified that the
motivation for his crimes was to “burn out unpleasant sexual memories” that haunted him
(Hickey, 2006).
John Orr was a fire investigator in California who set many fires that he later investigated.
He videotaped several of his fires and penned a novel describing his sexual excitement in
watching the fires he started. He enjoyed being applauded by his fellow arson investigators at
his adeptness in quickly identifying the points of origin of the fires. Orr was convicted and
sentenced to prison for arson in 1992, and for the death of four people in the fires in 1998. His
fire setting caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage (Hickey, 2015; Newton, 2006;
Petherick, 2009; Wambaugh, 2003). (ISSN: 2331-7582 ONLINE) BEHAVIORAL HEALTH, VOLUME 2, NUMBER 2
Pyrophilia: A Need for Further Discussion 5 Future Research
Pyrophilia is a relatively new term and therefore has rarely been diagnosed, researched, or
written about. The prevalence of pyrophilia is unknown due to a dearth of available and reliable
data. Further research should focus on: 1) establishing a universal data collection methodology
that is not endeared to any one discipline (e.g., law-enforcement, heath care professionals, or fire
service providers) and that measures multiple possible correlates or motives; 2) providing a
means of differentiating etiological features that can be tested using a class analysis research
methodology; 3) investigating the mechanism by which sex-related behaviors link to fire setting.
Additionally, investigators should anticipate that persons who engage in pyrophilia might have
histories of other criminal activities, frequently including those of a sexual nature.
Currently, not enough is known about pyrophilia as it is designated as a subcategory of
paraphilia, and its prevalence, parameters, and links to other sexual behaviors requires further
investigation. Most of the available literature on the topic of pyrophilia stems from case study
accounts. Moreover, in our experience, few professionals working within forensic mental health
settings, as well as the fire service have even heard of the term pyrophilia. Hence, the need for
increased awareness pertaining to this topic warrants further awareness and consideration by
professionals employed in various helping professions. As such, this article presents previously
set parameters of pyrophilia from clinical research literature, case studies, and discussed future
research to aid in the assessment and treatment of pyrophilia. Our hope is that what has been
presented will stir conversations about pyrophilia which can facilitate further research.
Author Biographies:
Jerrod Brown, MA, MS, MS, MS, is the Treatment Director for Pathways Counseling Center,
Inc. Pathways’ focus is to provide programs and services that benefit individuals impacted by
mental illness and addictions. Jerrod is also the founder and CEO of the American Institute for
the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS) and lead developer and program director for an
online master’s degree program in Forensic Mental Health from Concordia University, St. Paul.
Correspondence regarding this article can be sent to: [email protected]
Eric Hickey, PhD, is the Dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant
International University. As Professor Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, Dr.
Hickey has authored/edited several books on violent behavior and taught many courses involving
the psychology of crime, serial and mass murder, profiling sexual predators, crime scene
investigations, victimology, criminal personalities, threat assessment, and school and workplace
violence prevention. Email: [email protected]; Website:
Mario L. Hesse, PhD, is a professor of Criminal Justice at St. Cloud State University. Dr.
Hesse’s areas of research focus on corrections, delinquency, gangs, and media and crime. Email:
[email protected] (ISSN: 2331-7582 ONLINE) BEHAVIORAL HEALTH, VOLUME 2, NUMBER 2
Pyrophilia: A Need for Further Discussion 6 Warren Maas, MA, JD, is the Executive Director of Project Pathfinder, Inc., one of
Minnesota’s largest outpatient sex offender treatment programs. Mr. Maas holds a Master’s
degree in Clinical Psychology from Minnesota State University, Mankato and is a Licensed
Psychologist. He also holds a Juris Doctor degree from William Mitchell College of Law and
was a practicing attorney from 1986 to 2010. He is the President-elect of the Minnesota Chapter
of the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Email: [email protected]
Dallas S. Drake is Principal Researcher at the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis,
Minnesota where he conducts research on homicide prevention and case solvability, as well as
supervising a large academy of undergraduate and graduate student interns. Email:
[email protected]
Michael Flanagan, BBA, BS, EMT-P, is an instructor for the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance
Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention program. He has been in the fire service for 24 years, serving
as a fire investigator and the lead developer and program director of a juvenile fire setter
intervention program conducting intake and intervention development. He has served as a
consultant to the Dublin Institute of Technology for the development of curriculum for the Irish
Fire Service. Email: [email protected]
Samantha Lee, MS, is a doctoral candidate and instructor of Psychology at Texas Woman’s
University. Her research has largely focused on spirituality, addictions, and trauma, most notably
as it pertains to sex trafficking. Email: [email protected]
Hannah Brown, BA, is a volunteer mental health research assistant with the American Institute
for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS). She graduated from Macalester College in
2015 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Neuroscience. Email: [email protected]
Janae Olson, MA, is a clinician that specializes in the treatment of juvenile and adult sex
offenders. She is an adjunct professor at Concordia University and holds a master’s degree in
Forensic Psychology with a concentration in Sex offenders. Email: [email protected]
Kathi Osmonson, (consultant) Deputy Minnesota State Fire Marshal, coordinates statewide
Youth Fire setting Prevention & Intervention (YFPI) programs. These programs incorporate the
fire service, social services, mental health, juvenile justice, school staff and law enforcement.
She began fighting fires in 1987 and emphasized general fire prevention; youth fire setting
intervention in particular, as well as fire suppression, investigation and code enforcement duties.
Kathi is currently a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy (FEMA) and the
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU). Email: [email protected] (ISSN: 2331-7582 ONLINE) BEHAVIORAL HEALTH, VOLUME 2, NUMBER 2
Pyrophilia: A Need for Further Discussion 7 References
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