Figures vary from one country to another and by the agency responsible. The common factor is that though the percentage of fires deliberately started vary, it’s still a tragic fact that many fires are the work of arsonists. In Italy the agricultural union Coldiretti suggests up to 60% of wildfires are man-made. In Greece Vassilis Kikilias, the Minister of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection, told a news conference that a total of 667 fires took place. "The majority of them were arsons, either due to criminal negligence or intent," he said, adding: "The difference with other years was the weather conditions."
In Spain Officials in the northern region of Asturias say that unspecified arsonists were behind most of the 100 or so wildfires raging in the heavily wooded and mountainous area. In Portugal approximately 600 people have been placed under investigation over suspicions of deliberately setting fires, police said according to RTP.
RTP found that dozens of probable perpetrators of arson in forests and wasteland had been arrested, while many more are still on the loose. Police statistics show that this year services have already detained 54 arsonists, some of whom have criminal pasts and have served sentences for setting fires in forests.
Arsonists described as 'fire terrorists'
In Spain, Asturias regional President Adrián Barbón said the "full weight of the law" would be applied to what he described as "fire terrorists". He said the fires were started in an organised way by criminals taking advantage of the adverse weather conditions.
What kind of person deliberately starts a forest fire?
Mercia Today published a report from the Guardia Civil in Spain who had researched the question of what sort of person starts a wildfire. This was the best serious analysis I could find. They reported that the mathematical algorithm allows the system to extract a fairly tight profile of the arsonist. Although this is obviously unique for each case, Spanish police have identified the following 4 types of profiles:
1. The Seriously Reckless Country-dweller: The system produces a profile of a man over 46 years of age who is married, self-employed, with a job in the countryside, with no previous history and no psychological problems. He usually starts fires in spring, autumn or winter, in the morning or in the evening, with a single fire that starts near an agricultural area and does not use any accelerants or retardants. Witnesses are those who warn authorities about the fire.
2. The Arsonist without a Cause: Most arsonists are also men, but in this case under 46 years of age, single, separated or widowed. He is unemployed or has little income, lives alone and does not have many friends. He commits his crime in summer, under cover of darkness, and sets more than one fire in a high-risk area. He travels there on foot because he lives nearby. And he starts burning on a road or track near the forest. It is his neighbours who report the fire. The perpetrator neither stays on the spot nor helps to extinguish the fire. He usually uses a lighter to start the fire, has done it before and is a man who is already receiving psychological treatment. What’s more, he uses drugs or alcohol or both and acts under their effects.
3. The Man who Lights Fires for Financial Gain: This man is also self-employed and lives with his partner, has an elementary-level education and has an income of between 600 and 1,200 euros per month. He mostly lights fires in autumn and winter – more than one – and does it on the road for livestock or hunting purposes. He also usually lives in the same locality as the fire, travels to the scene by jeep, uses a lighter or something similar and sometimes it is he himself who warns firefighters of the fire. He is usually a serial arsonist.
4. The Vengeful Fire Starter: There are not many cases of fires started for revenge and so the sample is still too small to be able to draw an accurate profile. Even so, with what little data is available, the portrait is very similar to that of the Arsonist without a Cause, with the difference that he is even more maladjusted and has very little social contact. He also generally already has a criminal record for crimes of this sort.
Arsonists in Portugal
Publico published a report from the PJ (Policia Judiciary) with a different profile of arsonist in Portugal, this was based on arrest two years ago. This man was an unusual arsonist. He studied the weather and used a timer to create incendiary electronic devices. The timer caused a glow in a filament of a light bulb, burning the surrounding forest. When that happened, the man could be far away, surrounded by people, free from suspicion.
“Makes you feel like you have power”
Carlos Farinha, deputy national director of the Judiciary Police said, “Let's say that this man doesn't belong to the most frequent profile, which is that of socially disintegrated people. On the one hand, the concept of social integration is relative. He went on to say a typical profile is a man who likes to see people in distress, knowing that you are responsible for what caused that affliction, can make you feel like you have power.”
The typical arsonist is said to be male, single, no criminal record. not unemployed. He has low education. Drink and drug use do not figure strongly in the average profile. Portugal has a network of fire lookouts who spend the dry season in towers at vantage points all over the country. They are generally located in remote, densely wooded areas. There are over 230 towers in operation: 77 priority sites and 153 secondary sites, with more than 900 lookouts providing 24/7 surveillance.
The government and local authorities in high-risk areas are reputed to have installed closed-circuit cameras in areas popular with arsonists. Last year Forest fires consumed more than 106,500 hectares in Portugal, making it the fourth highest amount of burnt area in the last 10 years, 36% above average. Figures for this year are not yet available.
Local fire fighting services have invested heavily in additional equipment, also placing them closer to high-risk areas. The illustrated firefighting aircraft have been stationed in Alvor Aerodrome this year. These are Canadian aircraft known as Air Tractor AT-802AF. According to the manufacturers, “the Air Tractor AT-802F is built for battling fires large and small - not only as an initial attack firefighter but also for extended duties supporting ground crews. It combines agility, performance, high reliability, and pinpoint accuracy with a versatility that allows it to operate where other firefighting aircraft can’t”. With its additional tanks installed, this aircraft can carry 3,028 litres of liquid and is situated very close to the Monchique mountains, a high-fire risk area.
Firefighters verses arsonists, not a fair fight
The investment in firefighting equipment is impressive, and so are the firefighters. These are mainly the bombeiros. The government are supporting the observation of critical areas, as are the police. The sad fact is that despite the resources and bravery of those who tackle forest blazes in the summer, a small handful of arsonists in each area are responsible for millions of Euros worth of damage to forests and people. They move by night, are cunning, and are virtually invisible. It’s a very unfair battle. If you live in or around a vulnerable area, keep your eyes open and don’t hesitate to call the police.
Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy.