My grandfather babysat for me once when I was 4. He left me alone in the living room, probably for no more than five minutes. Unsupervised, I was drawn to my mother’s candle-powered Christmas pyramid, a three-tiered Nativity scene made of wood. I had once seen my mother light the candles ringing the wooden advent wheel. I knew that rising heat from the flames would cause the impeller to spin and the wise men to circle the Holy Family.
But I cared less about the wise men or the baby Jesus than about the fire’s dancing flames, the energy of their heat. I hastily lit a couple of the candles. Reaching to light a third, I knocked over the first two. The advent wheel caught fire. Flames climbed up the sides, scorching Mary, Joseph, a couple of the wise men and several trumpeting angels before leaping to the impeller blades. By the time my grandfather came back into the room, the whole advent wheel was ablaze. My grandfather extinguished the fire with a pot of water from the sink. I fled to my bedroom and hid, cowering under my bed until my mother’s return.
My grandfather’s yelling and the ensuing long talk my mother had with me about the dangers of fire made an impression. But so, too, did the memory of those licking tongues of flame, the way they took on a life of their own, growing so quickly, seemingly of their own volition.
The constraints of attentive parents kept my pyromania to a minimum for the next few years. I’d light a few matches while my mom was in the shower, or feed scraps of paper to the gas burner on the stove if she stepped out to the grocery store. I told no one about my urge to light things — not even my big sister, whom I usually told everything. My mom would sometimes let me light candles on the dinner table. She would watch me closely and joke about the incident with the advent wheel. I’d feel a twinge of guilt — she wouldn’t have laughed if she knew it wasn’t just a one-time incident, how I yearned for more ambitious conflagrations.
In sixth grade, I was deemed old enough to make the short walk home from school with my best friend and then stay at home unsupervised for an hour or so. This brief window of freedom became a time for me to explore my pyromania more fully. I did most of my fire-lighting in the bathroom, operating under the theory that bathroom tile wasn’t flammable. The first time I lit a match and sprayed the tiny flame with Aqua Net, the ensuing fireball was so big and breathtaking that I felt satisfied — and only a little afraid.
I wondered if these urges would ever be appeased. But even as I hoped I would outgrow my love of fire, I took bigger and bigger risks. I would cover my arms with hair spray and then light them, watching the eerie blue flames dance over my skin before dunking them in a sink full of water. My childhood pyromania eased boredom, fulfilled a longing for rebellion and burned away a stymied restlessness. But it was a pastime, even I could see, that would come to no good end. Or so I believed.
When I was 21, I found myself standing in a forest holding a drip torch in my hand. A drip torch is like a devilish silver watering can full of diesel and gasoline, with a burning wick below the spout. I tilted the drip torch, tentatively at first. A liquid trickle of fire poured out into a clump of bushes. I walked along, deliberately spilling fire, and the flames surged, reaching for low-hanging branches, then climbing into the trees.
This was the larger conflagration I had always longed for. I wasn’t a lone pyromaniac any longer, hiding my acts from the judgment of those around me. I was working on an elite “Hotshots” crew of 20 wildland firefighters. Now, for the first time, I was lighting a “backfire” that would burn in front of the main wildfire and thus deprive it of the fuel it needed to spread. I was literally fighting fire with fire.
As the flames reached hundreds of feet into the air, my fellow crew members cheered, brimming with a mad joy that came from having put their own obsession with flames to proper use. I cheered with them, the sound of my voice rising with theirs, and with the crackle of the blaze I had lit myself.
Mary Pauline Lowry is a novelist and screenwriter living in Southern California. Her novel “Wildfire” was published this month by Skyhorse Publishing.
One commenter wrote:
I find this piece frightening and cannot understand why the author’s obsession with fire is being publicized in a national newspaper as opposed to being discussed in the privacy of a psychologist’s office. The author describes herself not just as a child playing with matches, but also as an adult who is still drawn to setting fires, although she has found a socially acceptable outlet for this activity. She also suggests that people who fight forest fires (“hotshots”) are also pyromaniacs. I did not realize that. Is it true?
Fire-setting is not just some thrilling impulse, as it is described here. Many people are gravely injured or killed by fires that are set intentionally by people who do not mean to cause harm; they just like to set fires.
An obsession with lighting fires is also a trait found in some psychopaths. What if her life takes a bad turn and she becomes “alienated” and all those adjectives they use to describe “lone wolves”—she might decide to start a forest fire, since it seems to be “her thing.”
This article topic seems highly dubious to me.