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Bushfire arson: prevention is the cure

It will take social change to prevent people deliberately lighting bushfires. AAP Image/NSW Rural Fire Service, Barry Ballard

Bushfire arson: prevention is the cure

At this time of year, each year - the bushfire season - the complex nature of human behaviour hits home. Bushfires are a terrible event. The environmental destruction, the loss of property and sometimes lives, the damage to infrastructure, the fear and uncertainty, all take their toll in terms of financial and psychological costs. Extensive time and resources are rushed into emergency responses and the immediate aftermath of the fire – the fire needs to be put out, people need to be safe and have their basic needs met.

It is suggested that, of the approximately 60,000 bushfires which occur in Australia each year, one-third to a half are deliberately lit. Some believe that this proportion is much higher.

The occurrence of bushfire is only going to get worse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report predicts that in south-east Australia the frequency of very high and extreme fire danger days is likely to rise by between 4% and 25% by 2020 and between 15% and 70% by 2050. This increase in fire danger is likely to be associated with a reduced interval between fires, increased fire intensity, a decrease in fire extinguishments and faster fire spread. The implication of this is that many more fires which have been deliberately lit will become more dangerous.

The irony is that so much more could be done, both during and outside the fire season, to prevent the occurrence of fires and prevent the terrible losses and trauma. Yet few resources are allocated to either better understanding the drivers of bushfire or taking action to prevent the fire.

The cost of arson in Australia, according to recent Monash University work, was found to be $1.1 billion in 2009-2010, and this doesn’t include human or environmental costs. If only some of this cost was spent in prevention rather than repair.

The present response largely revolves around environmental modification, particularly around extensive cool burning. There are now serious questions as to whether this policy can be achieved and if it is the best way to go. A more comprehensive policy platform is needed to better target the situational conditions (where fires are lit, such as behind schools), and behavioural causes (for example, fires are often lit outside after school).

One example of excellent prevention work to raise community awareness, act as a deterrent and facilitate reporting of suspicion of arson is being undertaken by the Gippsland Arson Prevention Program (GAPP), in Victoria. Work is being undertaken on a voluntary basis in a collaboration between all sectors – business, the police, CFA, emergency services, the local council, the Department of Environment and Sustainability, Crime Stoppers and Monash Sustainability Institute.

Very little is known about people who intentionally light fires in Australia. However, we do know that they are largely male. About 40% are 15 to 20 years of age, 30% over 30 and about 10% children aged 10 to 15 years. About half of those over 15 years are unemployed. About two-thirds have, or will have, a conviction for violence – they are troubled people.

Even the little bit of knowledge we have suggests directions for prevention of arson. The disengagement of youth from employment and studying is a disgrace in Victoria, with youth unemployment – 15 to 19 years, the very age group which has the highest propensity to light fires - at 29.5% as of July 2012. This official figure is likely to be an under-estimation of the actual number.

Recent research at Monash Sustainability Institute has shown that some people are reluctant to report a suspicion of arson. Strong pathways from reporting to prevention need to be built, with resources for both arson investigation and an appropriate legal response, and treatment opportunities.

In 2005-06, 2,926 arson charges were laid in Victoria, while 39 people were sentenced in Victoria’s higher courts. Over the five years, 31% - 12 people, just over two people a year - received a term of imprisonment. One year was the most common sentence.

Significant new thinking is needed around bushfire arson prevention, aimed at structural, service design and operational levels and supported by research and evaluation of effects. A reduction in bushfire arson needs transformational, rather than incremental, change across all points of prevention. Not least of these prevention measures is a far more effective response to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.