The Skyline Parkway Motel at Rockfish Gap after arson on July 9, 2004.
Arson is the crime of intentionally and maliciously setting fire to buildings, wildland areas, vehicles  or other property with the intent to cause damage. It may be distinguished from other causes such as spontaneous combustion and natural wildfires. Arson often involves fires deliberately set to the property of another or to one's own property as to collect insurance compensation.
A person who commits this crime is called an arsonist. More often than not, arsonists use accelerants (such as gasoline or kerosene) to ignite, propel, and directionalize fires.
The malicious – for purposes of common law arson "malicious" means action creating a great risk of a burning. It is not required that the defendant acted intentionally or willfully for the purpose of burning a dwelling.
burning – at common law charring to any part of dwelling was sufficient to satisfy this element. No significant amount of damage to the dwelling was required. On the other hand mere discoloration from smoke was insufficient. Actual damage to the material from which the structure was built is required. Damage to surface coverings such as carpets and wallpaper is insufficient. Arson was not limited to the burning of wooden structures. Any injury or damage to the structure caused by exposure to heat or flame is sufficient.
of the dwelling – dwelling means a place of residence. The destruction of an unoccupied building was not considered as arson, "since arson protected habitation, the burning of an unoccupied house did not constitute arson." At common law a structure did not become a residence until the first occupants had moved in and ceased to be a dwelling if the occupants abandoned the premises with no intention of resuming their residency. Dwelling includes structures and outbuildings within the curtilage. Dwellings were not limited to houses. A barn could be the subject of arson if it was occupied as a dwelling.
of another – burning one's own dwelling does not constitute common law arson. However, for purposes of common law arson possession or occupancy rather than title determines whose dwelling the structure is. Thus a tenant who sets fire to his rented house would not be guilty of common law arson, while the landlord who set fire to a rented dwelling house would be guilty.
Furthermore, "[t]he burning of one's own dwelling to collect insurance did not constitute common law arson. It was generally assumed in early England that one had the legal right to destroy his own property in any manner he chose."
In many states arson is divided into degrees, depending sometimes on the value of the property but more commonly on its use and whether the crime was committed in the day or night.
First-degree arson - A typical statute might make the burning of an inhabited dwelling house at night.
Second-degree arson - The burning of a building close enough to a dwelling so as to endanger it
Third-degree arson and the burning of any structure with an intent to defraud an insurer thereof.
Many statutes vary the degree of the crime according to the criminal intent of the accused.
In the U.S., the common law elements of arson are often varied in different jurisdictions. For example, the element of "dwelling" is no longer required in most states, and arson occurs by the burning of any real property without consent or with unlawful intent. Arson is prosecuted with attention to degree of severity in the alleged offense. First degree arson generally occurs when persons are harmed or killed in the course of the fire, while second degree arson occurs when significant destruction of property occurs. While usually a felony, arson may also be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, "criminal mischief", or "destruction of property."Burglary also occurs, if the arson involved a "breaking and entering". A person may be sentenced to death if arson occurred as a method of homicide, as was the recent case in California of Raymond Lee Oyler and in Texas of Cameron Willingham.
In New York, arson is charged in five degrees. Arson in the first degree is a Class A-1 felony and requires the intent to burn the building with a person inside using an explosive incendiary device. It has a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.
In California, a conviction for arson of property that is not your own is a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison. Aggravated arson, which carries the most severe punishment for arson, is punishable by 10 years to life in state prison.
Some states, such as California, prosecute the lesser offense of "reckless burning" when the fire is set recklessly as opposed to willfully and maliciously. The study of the causes is the subject of fire investigation.
England and Wales
In English law, arson was a common law offence dealing with the criminal destruction of buildings by fire. The offence was abolished by the S.11(1) Criminal Damage Act 1971. The 1971 Act makes no general distinction as to the mode of destruction except that s.1(3) requires that if the destruction is by fire then the offence will be charged as arson; s.4 of the Act provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for conviction under s.1 whether or not the offence is charged as arson.
Scotland has no offence known as arson. Events constituting arson in English Law might be dealt with as one or more of a variety of offences such as Wilful Fire-Raising, Culpable and Reckless Conduct, Vandalism or other offences depending on the circumstances of the event. The more serious offences (in particular Wilful Fire-raising and Culpable and Reckless Conduct) can incur a sentence of life imprisonment.
^arson 1680, from Anglo-French. arsoun (1275), from Old French arsion, from L.L. arsionem (nom. arsio) "a burning," from L. arsus pp. of ardere "to burn," from PIE base *as- "to burn, glow" (see ardent). The Old English term was bærnet, lit. "burning;" and Coke has indictment of burning (1640). Arsonist is from 1864. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian.  (accessed: January 27, 2008)