NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Arson suspects who started some of the thousands of wildfires in the South this fall tell investigators nearly the same story each time — they were bored.
"Most say it's something to do," Tennessee Agriculture Crime Unit supervisor Max Thomas said of arson suspects he has interrogated. "There's not much activity in these rural areas for people."
More than 33,000 wildfires have hit the South this year, the worst rash in nearly a decade. In the past week alone, nearly 70,000 acres have burned in Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia and Georgia.
In two of the hardest-hit states — Kentucky and Tennessee — arson is blamed in nearly all the blazes.
Nine people have been arrested on arson charges so far in Tennessee, where fires this month have burned 29,000 acres, killed one firefighter and destroyed two houses. Five have been charged in Kentucky, which has seen 115,000 acres scorched.
Investigators say another common thread links arsons. Some suspects suggest they were simply following in their parents' footsteps.
"Others have told us 'My daddy did it, so I'm doing it,"' Thomas said. "It passes from one generation to the next, the same as child abuse."
Timothy G. Huff, a retired arson and bombing analyst for the FBI, said the "like-father-like-son" outlook is a regional phenomenon. Mental health experts say underlying issues may be at play, including emotional immaturity and feelings of inferiority.
"They are often people who have little or no personal power of their own," said Dr. Pat Nation, a criminologist at Middle Tennessee State University. "Controlling fire gives them a sense of power."
Nation's colleague, Dr. Gloria Hamilton, agrees.
"They're typically undereducated, unmarried, unemployed. They don't have anything to fill up their day, don't have the demands of life the rest of us have," said Hamilton, a professor and clinical psychologist at the university.
Crime could also be a factor. In Kentucky, state police have theorized some fires were started by marijuana growers burning plots of weeds and debris in preparation for spring planting.