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Warning: Is it an Accident or Arson?

Accident Versus Arson

One of the main challenges to arson prosecutions is to distinguish between arson fires and accidental fires. Arson fires are fires set with intent to destroy or damage property. The legal definition of arson fires involves fires where the person setting the fire had the intent to commit harm by setting the fire, as well as setting the fire or being interrupted while in the process of setting the fire. Accidental fires are all other kinds of fires.

Accidental fires are usually not prosecuted as arson. If however, an accidental fire occurs because of demonstrably gross negligence or a casual disregard for the consequences of setting the fire, these fires can cease to be judged as accidental and may instead be seen as arson fires.

An accidental fire is often set by a juvenile. In such situations, these juveniles may simply be manifesting an innate human interest in fire. More than half of the people arrested for setting fires of both types were under the age of 18 in 2003. Children under the age of seven are generally not setting arson fires. Accidental fires set by these children are almost exclusively the result of curiosity.

In children ages eight to twelve, fires are still sometimes accidental, but a greater proportion are arson fires. The arson fires set by these individuals are often a manifestation of deeper psychological problems, as seen by the fact that there are relatively few accidental fires set by juveniles thirteen to eighteen years old. Fires in this group are often intentional and criminal, meaning they can be properly called arson fires as can those set by adults.

Accidental fires set by adults come in several forms. The most widely depicted presentation of accidental fires in the media is the drunkard who falls asleep while smoking a cigarette, which then sets fire to the bed. Cigarettes represent the greatest source of accidental fires in the home. As a result of widespread calls for reform, technology has been adopted to try and prevent the rate at which accidental fires are created by cigarettes by changing the composition of the cigarettes so that they are less likely to burn if left unattended.

Another common species of accidental fires involving cigarettes involved throwing a lit cigarette from a moving car. This is a gray area, though, because negligence or disregard may apply.

A type of accidental fires that is not in dispute, however, involves campfires. Campfires at which every reasonable effort is made to control the fire and contain its blaze, but still spreads due to the spread of properly managed embers, can only be included in the category of accidental fires no matter how large the blaze which results.

Accidental fires in the home can have several causes. The forensic scientists employed to investigate fires are trained to examine whether a fire shares more similarities in burn patterns with accidental fires or arson fires. Common sources of accidental fires include cooking accidents, electrical appliances that have overheated, been left on for too long, or short-circuited, sparks from fireplaces or welding tools, cigarettes, or lightning strikes.

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