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Vic: Portrait of an arsonist

By Greg Roberts
11 Feb 2009 5:18 PM

MELBOURNE, Feb 11 AAP - The police say they are closing in on bushfire arsonists responsible for the Saturday's hellfire, but what sort of people are they looking for?

Who would deliberately start bushfires that kill scores of men, women and children when it's 47 degrees outside and a 100km/h gale is blowing?

The newspapers are full of angry people who have lost loved ones calling for blood, but others are sure the perpetrators must be mentally ill.

The truth, however, is the firebugs are almost certainly not insane, says forensic psychologist and criminologist Paul Wilson, of Queensland's Bond University, who has studied arsonists.

Professor Wilson says he believes arsonists, rather than foolish kids or adolescents playing with matches, are responsible for any bushfires deliberately lit last weekend.

"They are not psychiatrically sick at all," Prof Wilson told AAP on Wednesday.

"It is a myth to say most bushfire starters are pyromaniacs."

The typical arsonist or bushfire starter is a male, aged between 24 and 28, and a loner who may have lit fires as a child.

However, that profile is based on arsonists who are caught, when 90 per cent of them are not, Prof Wilson said.

"They do it for the excitement, they get a power trip from seeing the destruction they've caused or during it and they have no remorse," he said.

"They have a grudge against a person or a situation, such as a girlfriend that left them or an employer and they take out their anger and revenge by lighting fires.

"They are also likely to return to the scene of the crime to look at what they've done."

Prof Wilson said that same profile applied to Country Fire Authority volunteers who started fires but returned to "show what good citizens they are" by putting out the fires they started.

Police believe the fatal Gippsland fire was deliberately lit, and firebugs could be responsible for more.

Victorian police announced a taskforce called Phoenix on Tuesday bringing in 100 police to investigate all fire-related deaths from the bushfires and say they are confident of making arrests.

The death toll from the bushfire disaster is 181 and rising.