News Release

Study on arrests from intentionally set wildfires named Editor’s Choice

July 19, 2019

Asheville, NC — A study led by USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) research economist, Jeff Prestemon was chosen as “Editor’s Choice” in the June 2019 issue of the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Jeff Prestemon

Jeff Prestemon

The Journal publishes new and significant articles that advance basic and applied research concerning wildland fire.

The study utilizes municipality level data to evaluate whether arrests of intentional illegal firesetters in the region of Galicia, Spain, lead to movements in or reductions of future fires. Prestemon and his co-authors examined data from 1999 to 2014 to develop daily spatiotemporal ignition count models of agricultural, non-agricultural, and total intentional illegal wildfires.

The team of co-authors include David Butry, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD; María Luisa Chas-Amil, University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and Julia Touza, University of York, UK.

“Highlighting of our research by selection as the Editor’s Choice is a wonderful honor for me and my coauthors,” indicated Prestemon, who is also the project leader for the Forest Economics and Policy Research Unit based in Research Triangle Park, NC. “The journal appreciates the long-running collaboration by the four of us that has sought to understand better how arsonists and other illegal firesetters are affected by law enforcement and society. We are thrilled to be able to share the knowledge we have gained.”

Among the strategies and tactics available to policy-makers in response to heightened wildfire risks is to boost law enforcement efforts, particularly in the form of increasing rates of arrests for illegal firesetting.

Understanding how law enforcement efforts affect the timing and locations of future offending, including illegal firesetting, is critical to enacting effective policies and designing more effective law enforcement strategies aimed at reducing the occurrence of intentionally ignited wildfires that destroy property, damage resources, and harm individuals.

“We found very little documented research on whether arrests, as a distinct measure of law enforcement efforts, are linked to reductions in the occurrence of intentional fires or whether such efforts have broader impacts across space and time,” said Prestemon. “Research is somewhat conflicting on this point: if someone is arrested, does this merely push other firesetters to new locations, or does the arrest result in perceived higher risks for being caught, thereby disincentivizing additional firesetting across a broader spatial domain?”

Galicia was chosen because it is a region where intentional wildfires are the dominant wildfire cause attribution, and it is a region with a large enough number of intentional wildfires (half of Spain’s) and associated arrests to permit statistical identification of spatiotemporal effects of arrests.

The research team found evidence that arrests reduce future intentional illegal fires across space in subsequent time periods and that arrests lead to overall reductions in intentional illegal wildfires.