Fire interest, fire setting and psychopathology in Australian children: a normative study


  • Mark R. Dadds,

  • Jennifer A. Fraser

Mark R. Dadds, Senior Research Fellow, NHMRC (Correspondence)
School of Psychology, The University of New South Wales, New South Wales 2052, Australia. E-mail:

Jennifer A. Fraser, Senior Lecturer
School of Nursing, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


Objective:  Child and adolescent fire setting is associated with a broad pattern of antisocial behaviour and is associated with huge costs to the Australian community. Assessment and treatment options have principally been tested in clinically referred or incarcerated children and adolescents. Little information is available about fire setting in normal populations and thus opportunities for screening and early intervention are not well developed.

Method:  In this study, a large sample of 4- to 9-year-old children were assessed using a seven-item fire interest history screen with other measures of antisocial behaviour, children’s mental health, parenting style and quality and parenting stress. These were followed-up with parent and teacher report measures and a diagnostic interview at 12 months.

Results:  The fire history screening tool demonstrated utility in screening for early signs of fire setting. Prevalences of fire interest, and match- and fire-play were low overall but consistently higher for boys than for girls across ages. As expected, fire setting was associated with parental stress and a range of antisocial behaviours including conduct problems, hyperactivity, cruelty to animals and thrill-seeking temperament. In girls, it was also associated with anxiety/depression problems.

Conclusions:  Fire behaviours in children are related to broader psychopathology and family stress, and can be effectively identified in young children using a brief screening measure.