Arson is the criminal act of burning or charring property on purpose. The act of arson may include such acts as setting fire to a property maliciously, or burning a property with the intent to collect insurance money. While most people consider arson to be the burning of buildings, it may also be the burning of cars, boats, personal property, and land. To explore this concept, consider the following arson definition.

Definition of Arson

  1. noun. The act of recklessly or intentionally setting fire to personal or real property for an unlawful reason
  2. noun. The malicious burning of personal or real property with fraudulent or criminal intent

Origin    Late 17th century Medieval Latin arsio


Elements of Arson

According to common law, there are certain elements required to determine a fire to be caused by arson. These elements of arson include (1) the malicious, (2) burning, (3) of a dwelling, (4) belonging to another. While common law has its roots in the birth of the nation, legislation has changed through the years, expanding the definition of arson to include the burning of a person’s own property, as well as the burning of personal property, vehicles, and land.

Degrees of Arson

Most states define different degrees of arson depending on the circumstances surrounding the act. This includes factors such as whether the building was occupied at the time of the fire, or whether the act was committed in order to commit fraud. Another factor taken into consideration in the determination of degrees of arson is the amount of damages caused by the crime. The common degrees of arson include:

  • First Degree Arson– an act in which a person sets a fire to an occupied home or building
  • Second Degree Arson– an act in which a person sets fire to an empty or abandoned structure
  • Third Degree Arson– an act in which a person sets fire to an abandoned area of space such as a vacant lot or field

Aggravated Arson

In many states, a charge of arson may be upgraded to “aggravated arson,” which takes into account such factors was whether the accused anticipated a person being inside the building when they started the fire. The primary consideration in classifying aggravated arson is malicious intent. Intent may be caused by financial distress, anger, and other issues fraught with emotion. Aggravated arson is the same as First Degree Arson in some states, and may include the burning of a building to obtain an insurance settlement, or the setting of a fire for the purpose of harming another person, or to cause fear.

Reckless Arson

While most people consider arson to be the intentional setting of fires, reckless behavior that leads to the destruction of property by fire may also lead to arson charges.

For example, Joe and his friends go for a hike on a hot day in a popular state park. There are signs all over the hiking trail advising “fires are prohibited.” The group decides to make a small campfire to roast some hotdogs around lunchtime, even though they know that open flames are not allowed inside the park. After the fire has been started, the wind picks up and carries an ember to the dry grass nearby, igniting the underbrush and burning out of control.

The group is later arrested and charged with reckless arson because they behaved in a reckless manner by making a campfire where it was clearly prohibited. In many jurisdictions, reckless arson not only subjects the perpetrator to criminal charges, but he may be required to pay the high cost of fire suppression.

Accidental Fire

Not all fires fall under the category of arson. Sometimes fires are started accidentally, even though the person tried to be careful. For example, Mary is cooking her family breakfast when sausage grease splatters on her skin. Her quick reaction knocks the pan off the stove, splashing some of the grease onto the open flame, causing an accidental fire that quickly spreads to the curtains overhead. While Mary gets her family out of the house safely, the home quickly burns beyond repair. Mary is not guilty of arson as she had no intention of setting a fire, and she did not act recklessly.

In cases such as this, it is up to investigators to determine whether the fire was accidental or caused by an intentional act. When investigators cannot determine the cause of the fire or its origin, they may regard it as “suspicious” and continue with the arson investigation. For a person to be convicted of arson in a court of law, the elements of arson must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, this is not always a simply matter, as it can be difficult to prove a fire was set intentionally.

Arson Investigation

An arson investigation begins when firefighters are called to the scene of a fire, then follows specific protocols. Specially trained arson investigators personally review the scene and physical evidence, and interview witnesses as well as firefighters regarding their observations at the time of the fire. Some important considerations in any arson investigation include:

  • Color of Flames and Smoke – various substances and accelerants produce different colors of flames and smoke
  • Alarms and Sprinklers – where alarms and fire suppression sprinklers were located on the property, and whether they were disabled before the fire
  • Speed of the Fire – how rapidly the flames spread may indicate use of accelerants
  • Suspects at the Fire – whether or not witnesses saw familiar faces at the scene of the fire
  • Removal of Property – whether valuable or sentimental items were removed from the property just prior to the fire may indicate intent

Arson and Insurance Fraud

It is not uncommon for people to set fires in order to benefit from the insurance benefits covering the property. It is for this reason that insurance companies give great weight to arson investigation reports, and even employ their own arson investigators. Insurance fraud occurs in both residential and commercial arson. A person found guilty of setting a fire with the goal of collecting insurance money may face arson charges, and be convicted of both arson and insurance fraud.

Example of Arson Fraud

Rick’s shop is falling apart and he has no money to make repairs to keep it up to the standards of city codes. He cannot afford to close his business as the revenue is his only source of income. Rick has paid for a $1,000,000 insurance policy for 15 years. With the insurance money, Rick could build or purchase a new building, so he decides to set the building on fire and file a claim under his insurance. The investigators determine that fire was intentionally set, and Rick is charged with both insurance fraud and arson.

Punishment for Arson

Each state has specific penal codes that specify the sentences offenders may face if they are found guilty or arson. While punishment for arson varies by jurisdiction, the severity of each sentence takes into consideration the amount of damages caused by the fire, whether the fire was set with the intent to commit insurance fraud, and whether injuries or deaths occurred as a result of the crime.

For example, in California, the sentences handed down for an arson conviction include:

  1. Arson that causes bodily injury is punishable by imprisonment for five, seven, or nine years.
  2. Arson that involves an inhabited structure is punishable by imprisonment for three, five, or eight years.
  3. Arson of a structure or forest land is punishable by imprisonment for two, four, or six years.

When a person commits the crime of arson and it results in the death of another person, it can be classified as felonious murder in most states. This holds true even if the death was unintentional.


Bob starts a grassland fire in a neighbor’s field after the two had an argument. Bob believes the neighbor is away from home on vacation. The fire rages out of control and catches the neighbor’s house on fire. It turns out the neighbor is in fact at home, not on vacation, and asleep at the time of the fire. The neighbor dies from smoke inhalation. While bob had no intent to harm or kill the neighbor, he still may be found guilty of murder because the death was the result of his intentional act of setting the fire.

Additional Punishment for Arson

In addition to a punishment of incarceration, a person found guilty of arson may be fined or ordered to pay restitution. This is often determined by the amount of damages caused by the fire. For instance, if Lisa burned a building down and the resulting damage was $100,000, she could be ordered to pay the owner the entire amount of damages.

If a person commits another crime in conjunction with the arson, additional penalties may be imposed. For example:

Jack forcefully enters another person’s home by kicking in the front door. He steals the homeowner’s valuable jewelry and the money from their safe before starting a fire to cover up the crime. Jack is arrested a short time later and faces the following charges:

  1. Breaking and entering
  2. Larceny
  3. Arson

Arson Statistics

Although the penalties are stiff, arson is a frequently committed crime. Some facts and statistics concerning arson include:

  • Arson involving buildings accounts for over 45 percent of arson offenses.
  • Arson involving other types of property accounts for over 29 percent of arson offenses.
  • The average loss per arson offense is around $17,000.
  • In the United States, there are around 20 arson offenses per 100,000 people.
  • Sixty-five percent of structure fires caused by arson include occupied homes or buildings.
  • Half of all intentionally set home fires take place in the evening and nighttime hours.
  • From 2007 to 2011, 420 people died due to arson and 1,360 people suffered injuries.
  • Two out of five people charged with arson are under the age of 18.

The International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI)

The International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) is a group of professional individuals who aid in fire investigations. They also provide resources such as training, research, and up-to-date technology to fire departments and investigators around the world. As of 2014, there are over 8,000 members of the IAAI throughout the United States. In addition to performing investigation and training duties, the organization works to help those impacted by arson.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Breaking and Entering – using force to enter a home or business without permission from the owner.
  • Fraud – an act that intentionally deceives another person or entity for personal gain.
  • Offender – a person who commits a criminal act.
  • Larceny – the act of stealing someone’s personal property.
  • Penal Code – a code of laws specifying crimes, offenses, and punishments.
  • Restitution –compensation paid to a person or entity for their injuries or losses.