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What Does Arson Mean?

man with lighter
Arson is defined as the criminal act of setting fire to property.

Arson is a term that most of us have a stereotypical viewpoint on. We tend to think of pyromaniacs setting fire to abandoned buildings or people attacking businesses. But, there is more to arson as a criminal act. 

So, what does arson mean? What acts count as arson, and are they federal offenses or misdemeanors? Let’s look at different types of arson, important laws, and potential punishments. 

Arson and Property Damage

Generally, arson cases relate to property damage of some kind. This can vary in intensity and purpose depending on the motivation and what is set alight. 

Some arsonists like to start fires simply to burn something, with no thought about the impact of the destruction on other people. These cases can occur outside, away from civilization, or in abandoned buildings and warehouses. They may also burn abandoned cars and machinery.

abandoned car on fire
There are number of different types of arson.

However, there are also those with more deliberate intent to cause significant damage to someone else’s property. Their actions could be out for a form of retaliation or revenge against another or perhaps an attempt to fight back against a higher class, capitalist business, or political group. 

This can lead to more deliberate attacks on businesses and property where the owners may experience a material and financial loss. 

In either case, these arson attacks require an intention and clear action of selecting a target, setting light to it, and allowing it to burn.

This has to be a clear distinction between intentional and accidental. 

Many people can accidentally start property fires through poor fire safety and the misuse of flammable objects.

Arson and Insurance Fraud

When we think of arson attacks, we tend to think of people attacking the property of others. However, there are also many cases where people set fire to their own property for insurance fraud. 

post-it note
Arson is often carried in an attempt to make fraudulent claims to insurance companies.

Companies and homeowners may have a policy with an insurance company that will pay out a significant sum of money for damage caused by fire. Those in financial trouble may start a fire, trying to make it look like an electrical fault or other accident, so they can claim the money. 

Arson as a Felony Offense

Arson is often treated as a felony offense due to the danger to life. Arson attacks could quickly become hazardous to life, even if it wasn’t a direct and deliberate attempt to harm or kill an individual. 

There is always the chance that someone was in the vicinity without the arson offender being aware. Or, the fire could grow out of control and spread to nearby occupied buildings.

burning store
Arson is often regarded as a felony offense

In some cases, prosecutors will create a case for aggravated arson when there was a known injury due to the fire. This could be someone within the building, such as a property owner, security guard, or another bystander. 

It could also be someone injured while responding to the situation, such as a firefighter or police officer. 

How Do State Arson Laws Differ From Federal Laws?

Generalized federal laws prohibit deliberate fires on a property, but there are also more specific laws in each state to be aware of. Often, this relates to how state governments define the different degrees of arson and how many degrees there are. 

Burning forest land is deemed to be arson in California.

For example, in New York, some clauses relate to using incendiary devices in starting fires rather than simply lighting fuel. This can include throwing Molotov Cocktails at premises during a riot.

Another important distinction in state criminal law is that California includes burning forest land as arson and thus illegal instead of just focusing on property. This is increasingly important as a deterrent as wildfires become common and hard to control. 

A wildfire on the outskirts of LA deliberately set in parkland could easily spread to urban areas and endanger inhabitants. 

Defending and Prosecuting Arson Cases

Many arsonists will believe that getting away with their crimes is easy, and many low-level cases may go unprosecuted. This belief stems from the fact that fire can burn a lot of evidence, including the source of any accelerants. 

Burned building
Investigators are skilled at discovering the source of a fire despite extensive damage being caused.

However, skilled fire marshals and arson investigators can piece things together to determine the starting point and cause of a suspected arson fire. 

There is also the chance that CCTV or physical witnesses will spot something incriminating. Once you add in a motive for starting the fire deliberately, it can be difficult for defendants to get away with the arson crime. 

What Is the Maximum Sentence for Arson? 

The punishment for arson can depend on the nature of the crime and state laws. A small-scale misdemeanor arson case with minimal property damage may lead to nothing more than a fine. 

But, deliberate federal arson with an intent to endanger life can lead to an arson conviction that leads to a lengthy prison sentence

A conviction for arson could lead to up to 20 years in prison.

Generally, the federal arson punishment is between 5 and 20 years. But, this can increase if someone dies. This is where murder or manslaughter charges come into play. Also, there are additional punishments for insurance fraud on top of arson. 

Are Arsonists Pyromaniacs? 

There is often a misconception that arsonists are always pyromaniacs and vice-versa. This isn’t always the case, although there is a crossover. 

Pyromania allows for an unhealthy obsession with fire that can cause people to light fires and play with matches and lighters. But, this doesn’t always mean that they will go as far as to destroy property or try and endanger life. 

Arsonists need not be pyromaniacs.

Additionally, many arsonists will use arson fire as a weapon or means of destruction simply through convenience. As mentioned before, it can be easy to burn the evidence, and it’s a quick and accessible option. 

An interesting trait here lies with firefighters that commit an arson attack. Some people are drawn to the profession to be around a fire rather than to help people. There are cases of firefighters being caught setting fires deliberately. 

Playing With Fire

To summarize, arson is the deliberate intent to cause damage to property through fire. Cases of aggravated arson that lead to injury or those related to insurance fraud can lead to additional or more extreme punishments. In any case, arson fires can quickly become dangerous. 


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