Australia: We don’t just have a bushfire crisis. We have an arson crisis, too

According to my calculations and estimates, the number of individuals around Australia whose arson has contributed to the current bushfire crisis has now passed 200.

This figure is not presented as a counter-argument to those who blame the fires on climate change. Most people (I hope) understand that trees tend not to spontaneously combust, no matter what the air temperature is; when we talk about bushfires starting naturally, we are talking about lightning strikes igniting tinder. The climate change argument posits that the more extreme weather conditions – higher temperatures, drought and so forth – make fires, however started, much more destructive and much more difficult to control and extinguish. These are debates to be had between climatologists, forestry experts and firefighters.

What is painfully clear, however, that Australia has a firebug crisis. It will no doubt be up to future royal commissions and inquiries to calculate exactly what proportion of the current loss and destruction can be attributed to human action, but I suspect it will be a significant one. Mankind may be causing climate change, but man is most definitely making fires start.

Where’s the proof, you ask? Below is a sample of news reports from around the country over recent months.

August 24:

Three teenage girls have been arrested for arson over 13 grassfires police allege were deliberately lit on the New South Wales mid-north coast. The girls, aged 12, 13 and 14, were arrested in South Kempsey on Wednesday by officers from Strike Force Tronto, which was set up to investigate the fires.No-one was hurt in the blazes, which damaged grassland before being controlled by rural firefighters. The teens will be dealt with under the Young Offenders Act.

September 10:

Police have located a 12-year-old boy in Queensland who allegedly lit a fire deliberately that destroyed bushland and part of a storage facility in Slacks Creek in Logan, about 5pm Monday. The boy was with a group of juveniles in bushland off Kingston Rd, behind Woodridge Skate Park, when he allegedly started the fire, which spread quickly to a nearby storage facility, destroying a fence, two shipping containers and their contents, and police say he will be dealt with under the provisions of the Youth Justice Act. Another two 14-year-old girls are also assisting police with their inquiries after allegedly deliberately lighting a fire in bushland in Ormeau on the Gold Coast this morning.

November 13:

NSW police believe 12 bushfires may have been deliberately lit by arsonists during Tuesday’s “catastrophic” fire conditions…A suspected arsonist was ­arrested after a chase through the Royal National Park, south of Sydney by an army Black Hawk helicopter. The crew of the 6th Aviation Regiment unit in the Black Hawk spotted a man “acting suspiciously” in the northern area of the park, The Daily Telegraph reported. A fire had begun nearby. After coordinating with police on the ground, the man was arrested late in the evening and was being questioned. A crime scene has been established near scorched bushland at South Turramurra where police are investigating the origins of the fire to try to confirm whether it was sparked by an arsonist…Authorities are also probing the circumstances around several suspicious fires at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, at Berkeley near Wollongong, and at Moonbi near Tamworth.

November 14:

Police allege a teenager started a central Queensland bushfire that has destroyed 14 homes…Police say the 16-year-old boy has not been charged with arson, but will be dealt with under the state’s Youth Justice Act. The Cobraball fire, near Yeppoon, is still burning days after it destroyed homes, sheds and cars.

November 20:

Last week we learnt that the Binna Burra fire, which destroyed the historic Binna Burra Lodge in South East Queensland, was started by a carelessly discarded cigarette. And the Gold Coast hinterland bushfires the week before may have been started by army live-firing exercises at the Kokoda Barracks, a spokesperson for the Australian Defence Force has conceded.

November 20:

More than half of the 18 people who have been dealt with by police over recent Queensland bushfires are children, police have revealed. Since a state of emergency was declared in Queensland on November 9, police said they had taken action against 18 people for deliberately lighting fires. Of that, police said, 10 are juveniles who are being dealt with under the Youth Justice Act. In the two years to the end of 2018, 136 children were charged with endangering property in Queensland by lighting fires — just 18 were convicted. Several teens were charged over recent fires including a 16-year-old boy who allegedly started a fire west of Yeppoon that destroyed 30 structures and two other teens over a September blaze at Peregian on the Sunshine Coast.

November 27:

A volunteer firefighter in Australia has been charged with deliberately lighting blazes during the nation’s bushfire crisis. Police arrested the man, 19, for seven counts of alleged arson in an area south of Sydney, New South Wales.

December 17:

NSW Rural Fire Service Inspector Ben Shepherd has revealed investigators are close to charging more than a dozen suspected arsonists believed to have deliberately lit bushfires as the state remains in the grip of an ongoing bushfire crisis. It comes amid revelations at least 56 people have already been charged or cautioned with 71 bushfire-related offences since August, with 16 ongoing investigations into suspicious fires, including a blaze that threatened the rim of suburban Sydney in South Turramurra, on Sydney’s Upper North Shore, on November 12.

So that’s up to 72 people in NSW.

December 20:

Almost 100 firebugs have deliberately started blazes across Queensland that have destroyed homes and consumed thousands of hectares of bushland.

Some 65 fires continue to burn across the state on Friday, jumping from 55 reported on Thursday, as the fire threat deepens heading into the weekend.

As firefighters remain on high alert, police revealed 103 of the destructive fires that have lashed Queensland since September were deliberately lit.

Figures obtained by AAP reveal 98 people – 31 adults and 67 juveniles – have been dealt with by Queensland police for deliberately setting fires.

And 98 in Queensland so far.

December 23:

Police in the central-western NSW town of Wellington have arrested an 11-year-old boy in relation to a fire along the Bell River. At 7 pm on Sunday emergency services responded to reports of a grass fire at a reserve at the western end of the town. A group of boys had allegedly been seen running from the area.

December 23:

As devastating bushfires ravage Australian communities, claiming lives and homes, firebugs have continued to ignite blazes across the weekend in WA. Firefighters were called to a “suspicious” blaze in the south-eastern suburb of Byford on Sunday afternoon, just hours after WA Police had made a public call-out for information about a bushfire that tore through Armadale on Saturday. The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) claimed the fire was deliberately lit just after 5 pm near Warrington Road… In Armadale, bushland was burnt and several roads were forced to close on Saturday afternoon due to a “suspicious” blaze that ignited about 11am near the Ranford and Armadale Road intersection. The incident prompted police to ask for public assistance to identify a man captured on CCTV who they want to question as part of their investigation.

December 29:

A series of suspicious grass fires across Victoria are under police investigation. A grass fire in Glenmore that broke out at 3.50 pm yesterday, burning about 10 hectares, was followed less than 30 minutes later by another suspicious grass fire in Bacchus Marsh. A third suspicious blaze then broke out in Parwan just five minutes later. It came after a suspicious grass fire threatened businesses and homes in the Bendigo suburb of White Hills about 3.30 pm yesterday. Meanwhile, police have charged a 71-year-old man for allegedly lighting a fire without a permit northwest of Moruya on the NSW south coast, causing a 40-hectare bushfire in the Wandera State Forest, and charged another man for allegedly lighting two bushfires near Cessnock in the Hunter.

December 31:

A bushfire that threatened lives and homes in suburban Melbourne is under investigation, amid suspicions it may have been deliberately lit… Another series of fires allegedly set in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs earlier in December have resulted in a man being charged with five criminal counts of arson. The 41-year-old was arrested on Monday after police executed warrants for fires in the Cranbourne and Dandenong areas lit on December 17 and December 28. The man faced court on Tuesday and was remanded in custody until his next appearance at Dandenong Magistrates Court on January 21.

December 31:

As South Australian firefighters continue to battle blazes that broke out during catastrophic conditions on Monday, a suspicious grassfire has come close to a popular camping area south of Adelaide. The fire, at Second Valley on the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide, was an unwelcome sight to campers as it burned in hills overlooking the Rapid Bay caravan park.

January 1:

A deliberately-lit bushfire in northeast Tasmania is sparking an emergency warning as winds increase.The blaze is part of a network of suspicious fires near Fingal which have burned across more than 6600 hectares.

January 2:

Police have arrested and charged a man following reports he allegedly started a fire in East Gippsland last night. The 36-year-old man, of no fixed address, is accused of starting a fire in Johnsonville, east of Bairnsdale.

January 3:

The Tasmania Fire Service said on Friday that uncontrolled fires in the state’s north-east had burnt down a house and destroyed a car at Tower Hill. Police believe the fire was started by arson on Monday.

There are no conspiracies here. Though arson has been tried and called for before as a tool of terror, the Australian fires seem to result from the actions of unconnected individuals who are either disturbed or reckless. This is nothing new; as ecological criminologist Paul Read wrote back in November:

A 2015 satellite analysis of 113,000 fires from 1997-2009 confirmed what we had known for some time – 40 per cent of fires are deliberately lit, another 47 per cent accidental. This generally matches previous data published a decade earlier that about half of all fires were suspected or deliberate arson, and 37 per cent accidental. Combined, they reach the same conclusion: 87 per cent are man-made…

If I had to guess, I’d say about 10,000 arsonists lurk from the top of Queensland to the southern-most tip of Victoria, but not all are active and some light fires during winter. The most dangerous light fires on the hottest days, generally closer to communities and during other blazes, suggesting more malicious motives. Only a tiny minority will gaze with wonder at the destruction they have wrought, deeply fascinated and empowered. Others get caught up with the excitement of chaos and behave like impulsive idiots.

As for children, they are not always malicious. Children and youths follow the age-crime curve where delinquency peaks in their late teens. Playing with fire is just one of many forms of misbehaviour. The great majority grow out of it. Four overlapping subgroups include accidental fire-play getting out of control; victims of child abuse – including sexual abuse – and neglect; children with autism and developmental disorders; and conduct disorder from a younger age, which can be genuinely dangerous. 

The more fires, proportionally the more arsonists. And the recent mega-fires are really bringing out all the firebugs out of the woodwork (or into the woodwork to be more accurate). It is disturbing, but sadly not surprising or unexpected.

As some have suggested already, the current crisis, with its large sample of arsonists, provides a good opportunity for more research into the psychology, motivation and behaviour of fire-starters. This might help in the future, but clearly arsonists will always be with us.

The task is to make their work more difficult, for example through better management of our forests to make them less combustible. But as much as bushfires are an environmental and land management problem, as we search for solutions we can’t forget that they are also a criminal one.

Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk, where this piece also appears.