Bushfire arson is an intractable and costly problem for Australia. This is a report from The symposium Advancing Bushfire Arson Prevention in Australia, held on 25–26 March 2010
which brought together a wide range of stakeholders to identify the gaps in current knowledge and responses to bushfire arson, and determine priorities for addressing them. Bushfire arson is a complex and multi-faceted issue.
While many valuable details can be found in the papers in this report, there are several clear and overarching conclusions that can be drawn from them on how to improve bushfire arson prevention in Australia:
Bushfire arson differs from structural (building) arson in important ways, including having more varied motives and less knowable consequences. It is important to understand and appreciate these differences for bushfire arson prevention and the management of bushfire arson offenders.
The priority and resources given to bushfire arson in Australia need to reflect the high costs of dealing with the consequences of this crime and the much lower costs of preventing it from occurring in the first place. This is particularly urgent given the increasing risk of even higher damages in the future as a result of demographic and climate trends.
There is a lot that can be done to reduce the incidence of bushfire arson in Australia, including addressing the underlying causes, implementing situational and behavioural crime prevention, increasing capture and conviction rates, and treating offenders to prevent recidivism. The earlier the intervention in the life-cycle of the crime, the lower the cost will be; however multiple approaches targeted at each of these intervention points are needed to reduce the incidence of arson.
Some prevention approaches work better than others or are more effective for particular situations (such as an offender with a particular motivation). An effective – and cost effective – prevention strategy will be based on a combination approaches that are (1) tailored to the local circumstances and the specific situations or types of people that are problematic, and (2) have been shown to work.
Our current knowledge and understanding of bushfire arson and the effectiveness of existing prevention approaches is insufficient for developing effective bushfire arson prevention strategies. We need to develop this knowledge by improving understanding of the risk factors for bushfire arson and its spatial and temporal patterns, and by evaluating prevention approaches. Research programs to study bushfire arson must therefore form an important part of Australia’s response to bushfire arson.
Better and more accessible data is essential for the development of effective bushfire arson prevention strategies. High quality data is the basis for the development of risk assessment tools and prevention programs, and a means of understanding the cost effectiveness and outcomes of prevention and treatment programs. Data needs to be captured on all relevant fires and arson offenders through resources for more extensive investigation and referral services. Work needs to be done on understanding what data is needed, and how best to standardise, gather and present this information for both operational and knowledge development purposes.
Bushfire arson requires a multi-agency and inter-disciplinary response. The responsibility for dealing with aspects of bushfire arson falls within the jurisdiction of a variety of national, state, and local agencies. In most cases, no one agency has the responsibility for coordinating bushfire arson prevention, leaving the response fragmented and inefficient. There is goodwill and recognition among people at these agencies of the need to work together on this problem. Forming state-level coordination bodies or committees, with an appropriate mandate and representatives from all relevant stakeholders, was recommended by some symposium participants.
The Australian Bushfire Arson Prevention Initiative, which initiated and co-hosted the symposium, will use these conclusions as the basis for setting the Initiative goals and structuring planning over the next five years.