If we wallow in the Twittersphere, we would certainly be convinced that the cause of these tragic bushfires is climate change and that if only ScoMo would announce a 100% renewable target, the fires would immediately abate. There is also the view that maybe fuel loads in our forests and national parks are the real problem in which case we need only adopt more traditional methods of land management such as cool burns do them more often and all will be well. Then again, there is the common belief that if only we would remove the legislative and regulatory constraints imposed by 'green' controlled local bodies and state environmental agencies, then bushfires would return to normal – whatever definition you put on that.
Considering for a moment road accidents, were there a cause contributing anything up to 50% of all accidents and fatalities, we would surely know about it. Driving under the influence of drink or drugs is perhaps the most reported cause of road accidents and we certainly have plenty of warnings on the dangers of driving under the influence. Those warnings are backed up by tough penalties in the courts if we offend. There is very strong community awareness on these issues.
Over the past couple of months bushfires have dominated the news and the predominant cause is cited as climate change. There has been no shortage of conflicting advice from all sectors of the community as to what we could do, should or must do and most of that demand for 'action' is directed at federal government. Many say it is 'inaction' by federal government that is the principal cause of bushfires throughout Australia.
And so, the daily debate within political circles, within the community and within the media is all about what government can and cannot do in preventing bushfires.
Our 'firies' do a tremendous job and when we think of them, what comes to mind is these brave people on the front line facing and fighting walls of fire. But one of the lesser known tasks 'firies' have is the time consuming and meticulous forensic review undertaken after any fire event.
They are highly skilled at fighting fires for not only are they well trained, but they work very hard trying to understand fire – how did it spread, what was our response, what conditions were in play and most importantly, what started it.
All of that painstaking research and evaluation is reported and remains a repository of knowledge that underpins the effectiveness of the fire service. Various agencies throughout Australia from CSIRO through academia research bushfires but none is quite as comprehensive on causes of fire as research undertaken by the Australian Institute of Criminology (Bryant 2008). This research is based on an extensive analysis of bushfire data collected by Australian fire agencies. Approximately 280,000 vegetation fires from 18 Australian fire and land management agencies were included in the analysis, representing around five years of fire data from each agency.
Quoting from their report:
It was found that the proportion of vegetation fires that were deliberate varies between agencies and regions, as well as across time of day and time of year. However, on average across the country, approximately 13 percent of vegetation fires are recorded as being deliberate and another 37 percent as suspicious. That is, for all vegetation fires for which there is a cause recorded, 50 percent may be lit deliberately.
The research acknowledges:
…. inconsistencies exist between and within agencies in recording data. For example, different agencies may have different thresholds as to when they consider a fire to be deliberate, suspicious or unknown. Despite these uncertainties, it is clear that natural fires are actually quite rare, and that the vast majority of vegetation fires arise from human causes, including deliberate arson.
Over the past two months or more, media coverage of the bushfires has been 'wall to wall'. The topic has dominated conversation throughout the holiday season, and everyone knows we are dealing with tragic circumstances.
Yet no one talks of the cause that must not be named – ARSON. The media don't seem know about it, the politicians likewise. Consequently in the community, most people are entirely unaware of the likely presence of arsonists within their midst.
Hamish MacDonald, presenting on the ABC Radio National Breakfast programme refused point blank to accept arson had any role in bushfires telling one listener that arson as a cause was "rubbish'. Tom Tilley, another ABC Radio National presenter on the same programme interviewed an ABC science reporter and arson as a cause of these bushfires came up. The science reporter described bushfire arson merely as "theory". According to Merriam-Webster, a theory could be anything from a scientifically acceptable general principle to an unproved assumption to an abstract thought. Tom Tilley clearly seized on the speculative abstract thought closing the topic with the comment that arson therefore has "little impact at all" when it comes to bushfires. Therefore, it is quite apparent the ABC is in complete denial on arson! And as long as other media refuse to talk about arson, the ABC cannot be bought to account on the matter.
Now and again, arson has been mentioned on Fox News but other than that, for most print and broadcast media over the past two or three months, arson is the cause of bushfires that seemingly must not be named.
A news report that fleetingly emerged in The Australian newspaper in mid-January told us that:
… more than 180 alleged arson cases have been recorded since the start of 2019, with 29 blazes deliberately lit in the Shoalhaven region of southeast NSW in just three months. The Shoalhaven fires were lit between July and September last year, with Kempsey recording 27 deliberately lit fires, NSW Bureau of Crime and Statistics and Research data shows.
Further, The Australian reported:
NSW police data shows that since November 8, 24 people have been arrested for deliberately starting bushfires, while 184 people have been charged or cautioned for bushfire-related offences.
So how do more than 180 individuals get involved in these illegal and highly dangerous activities without raising the attention and ire of the community?
The most tragic bushfires in recent memory occurred a decade ago in Victoria – Black Saturday.
These bushfires killed 173 people, with another 414 people injured. More than 450,000 hectares burned and 3500 buildings including more than 2000 houses destroyed. The RSPCA estimated that up to one million wild and domesticated animals died in the disaster. Just one arsonist was found guilty on ten counts of arson causing death. In about four years he will be eligible for parole, free to move around the country. The nagging question in light of the research and in light of recent effective police work is, was this one arsonist the only one deliberately lighting fires on Black Saturday?
If there have been 24 arrests in six weeks during the current bush fire season, shouldn't the community have the potential for arson and the likely presence of arsonists in their midst top of mind right now?
There is a theory that talking about arson when the potential for bushfires is high only serves to stimulate arsonists into action. There well may be some truth to that theory. But if we do not talk about arson will the community be able to identify the arsonist moving about their locality? It seems to me that being aware of the probability of arson is an essential part of community preparedness. In the same way those in areas of high risk go about their property looking to minimize risk and develop plans to stay safe, keeping aware of arson as a potential cause of fire is an essential part of being prepared.
More importantly, elevating the reality of arson and addressing legislative reforms to the criminality of arson is essential. Having a hand in deliberately causing the deaths and destruction bushfires leave demands more than the penalties now applied.
Surely the victims of these recent bush fires deserve that.