While the bushfire crisis gripping large parts of Australia continues, it’s still too early to determine just how many blazes were deliberately lit by callous arsonists.
But crime data from around the country covering the current devastating season in the worst-affected states gives insight into the sinister origins of a proportion of infernos.
In past studies, criminologists have estimated that 85 per cent of wildfires are caused by humans. That includes arson, but also non-malicious activities like leaving a campfire smouldering or throwing a lit cigarette from a car.
Australian research conducted in 2008 determined that about 8 per cent of formally recorded vegetation fires over a several year period were the direct result of firebugs.
Another 22 per cent of examined bushfires in the Australian Institute of Criminology study were deemed to be suspicious. Some 40 per cent couldn’t be assigned a cause.
“When unassigned bushfires were investigated by fire investigators, the majority were found to be maliciously lit,” Janet Stanley, Associate Professor at Melbourne University’s Sustainable Society Institute, wrote in The Conversation.
“But official fires are just the tip of the iceberg. The actual number of bushfires in Australia is thought to be about five times that recorded. Virtually none of these unrecorded fires are investigated.”
Since the start of the 2019 fire season, millions of hectares of land has been burnt across the country and thousands of firefighters have worked around the clock in a bid to stop the spread of blazes, protect homes and save lives.
Police have also been busy hunting down active firebugs.
Since November, authorities in NSW have charged or cautioned 183 people for some 200 bushfire-related offences – malicious and otherwise.
Of those, 24 people have been charged with deliberately lighting bushfires.
Another 53 were charged or cautioned for failing to comply with a total fire ban and another 47 with discarding a lit cigarette.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys yesterday said plain clothes and uniformed officers across the state remained vigilant for any reckless behaviour, regardless of intent.
“I know that all of those people (charged) aren’t arsonists in a sense, I know a lot of them were doing things like using fireworks or lighting fires to camp or cook food … I know all of those people are not out there trying to kill people or destroy houses,” he said.
“We need to get that in some perspective.
“Still, what it does show me and the community is that police are well aware that we need to take action against people, whatever that might be, at this time.
“It is particularly a heightened risk of fire activity and we’ve seen the devastation it causes. We make no apologies for being so vigilant about that.”
In Victoria, where the East Gippsland region has been ravished by bushfires, arrest data covering the current season isn’t yet available.
But in the year to September 2019, 21 people were charged with deliberately causing a bushfire.
A number of bushfire-prone states have executed special operations to target firebugs.
On September 10 last year, Queensland Police established Taskforce Overcross to “prevent, disrupt and investigate all significant bushfires across Queensland”, a spokesperson told news.com.au.
To date, police action has been taken with respect to 101 people on 172 charges, including 32 adults and 69 juveniles, who have been dealt with for “offences relating to recklessly and/or deliberately setting fires”.
“The type of offences detected statewide include unauthorised lighting of fires, contravening local fire bans, and endangering property under the Criminal Code.”
In conjunction with the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service and the Queensland Rural Fire Service, police have also been probing bushfires to identify their causes.
“The taskforce has established that a number of the fires have been deliberately or recklessly set by school-aged children,” the Queensland Police spokesperson said.
“A number of these have been lit in grass and bushland, which in some cases has caused significant property damage. Not only does this behaviour put lives and property at risk, the lighting of fires can lead to prosecution for serious offences.”
Authorities in South Australia launched its Operation NOMAD taskforce on September 1 last year, targeting a range of fire-related offences.
Since then, there have been a total of 85 arrests or reports covering a range of activities, including non-bushfire charges for property damage or arson.
When it comes to causing a bushfire intentionally or recklessly, SA Police have so far made 10 arrests or reports over the past four months.
There were another 24 instances of lighting or maintaining a fire during a total fire ban day, and six for lighting or maintaining a fire during a fire danger season.
In Tasmania, there have been two charges for unlawfully setting fire to vegetation since 1 July, 2019. In the financial year prior, there were six charges.
Over the past six months, Tasmania Police have laid five charges for arson, including two for attempted arson – charges that typically relate to non bushfire-specific acts.
In the ACT, one man has been charged with allegedly lighting a grass fire deliberately during a total fire ban.
“We hope this will be the only incident of this type for the rest of the fire season,” an ACT Police spokesperson said.
“Police patrol specific areas in the ACT during total fire bans to deter and detect any suspicious activity or anti-social behaviour.”