According to latest figures, nearly one in four fires is started deliberately and the number of arson attacks has doubled in 10 years.
The Fire Brigades' Union believes continuing unemployment and the high number of firms going out of business are among the major causes of the increase.
Arson has also increased as part of a general rise in crime. More fires are started as petty vandalism by bored children and teenagers and by burglars attempting to cover their tracks.
David Higgs, national officer for the FBU, which has 50,000 members, said: 'This is a reflection of the society we live in and we are very concerned because of the danger to our members.
'There has been a general rise in vandalism but poverty and the recession provide many reasons for people to start fires. Businesses are failing and people try to make insurance claims. Others have been sacked and want to get back at their employers.
'Unfortunately, I do not think the situation got any better last year. We would like to see tougher punishments for arsonists.'
Latest figures from the Arson Prevention Bureau show there were 26,300 arson attacks in occupied buildings in 1992 compared to 24,862 in 1991.
In 1981 there were 12,772 and in 1971 5,288. Arson now accounts for 24 per cent of all fires in occupied buildings.
Douglas Woodward, director- general of the bureau, set up and funded by the Home Office and the Association of British Insurers, said there had been some success in tackling arson.
'Insurance companies are paying out less which suggests that the larger scale insurance frauds are in decline,' he said.
Mr Woodward added that the release of former mentally ill patients into the community had also contributed to the increase and petty vandalism had risen.
The Association of British Insurers said claims resulting from all fires were pounds 650m in 1993 compared to more than pounds 1bn in 1991. About half of it was due to arson.
In West Yorkshire, one of the worst regions for arson, a special squad of fire officers has been set up to tackle the pounds 40m-a-year problem. The squad will develop specialist knowledge and operate from the fire service's headquarters at Birkenshaw, near Bradford.
According to the fire authority, there were 3,996 deliberate fires in West Yorkshire in 1992 - nearly half of all fires. The number of arson cases has tripled since 1988.
West Yorkshire's deputy chief fire officer, Malcolm Saunders, said arson was on the increase but the figures also reflected greater expertise in fire detection.Reuse content