BUSHFIRES are a fact of life in Australia, and have long been an essential part of our ecosystem. Research conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology shows that, of the 20,000 to 30,000 vegetation fires experienced in Australia each year, about half are deliberately lit or suspicious. Deliberately lit bushfires constitute a considerable proportion of the fire suppression activities of Australian fire agencies. Responding to these unnecessary fires can unduly burden fire agencies. High numbers of deliberate bushfires occur where the bush meets the suburbs. Given the expansion of Australia’s urban centres and residential movement from the suburbs to semi-rural areas, fire control and prevention along the rural-urban interface has become increasingly important. The prevention of these acts of bushfire arson has enormous potential to reduce damage to life and property, and free up fire services to attend to other fires. Australian fire agencies have a long history of running programs and promoting community safety to reduce the incidence and potential damage of fires. Programs in schools, promotion of devices such as smoke alarms, advice on the preparation and defence of property and other community education activities are well-established. Most bushfire programs, however, have been concerned with protecting against a fire rather than preventing fires from starting. Much of the public commentary around bushfire arson focuses on sentencing of offenders. Bushfire arson is a crime in each Australian state and territory and commonly carries severe prison sentences for those convicted. Due to the difficulty of catching and convicting bushfire arsonists, however, such charges are laid only rarely. It is difficult for many people to comprehend why someone would deliberately light a fire that potentially puts property and lives at risk. Some attention has been paid to the topic of the motivations of arsonists in the international literature but little of this has focused explicitly on bushfire arson. We don’t know very much about bushfire arsonists because very few are ever caught. Many deliberate fires are not identified as arson and, among those that are, in only a small proportion will an offender be identified. Some of those offenders will not be charged or prosecuted because proving they caused the fire can be difficult. What we do know about arsonists suggests that the majority are young men, although that does not distinguish them from typical perpetrators of other crimes. Recent research in New South Wales indicated that half of all arson defendants, and one third of bushfire arsonists, had a prior criminal conviction. Most had not previously been convicted of arson, suggesting that most firesetters are not exclusively arsonists. While setting fire to buildings or cars is often motivated by financial gain or revenge, bushfire arsons tend to be motivated more by psychological rewards, such as excitement or attention. This generally makes it difficult for us to comprehend what someone would get out of setting a bushfire. Simply relying on the criminal justice system to prevent bushfire arson is a mistake, because many arsonists will never be identified or brought before the courts. Situational and community crime prevention approaches that address the local environment are most likely to have an impact, while offender-based approaches need to focus on the treatment of known offenders, both adults and juveniles. For this reason Australian fire services are developing strategies for preventing arson using many of the same principles as situational and community crime prevention programs that target more common street crimes. Situational crime prevention involves preventing crime by changing some aspect of the physical world to make crime more difficult, and hence less likely to occur. The approach arose from recognition that, contrary to previous pessimism that nothing actually worked to reduce crime, simple modifications, often at a local level, could be effective. Programs focusing on the community are primarily concerned with educating the community and raising awareness about the dangers of deliberate fires. They are generally targeted at a particular component of the community, either those likely to set fires or those who are in a position to prevent them. They act primarily to reinforce guardianship in fire-prone areas. While presented as distinct, community and environment-focused programs are likely to be complementary, and should not be regarded as mutually exclusive. Primary prevention techniques to reduce deliberate bushfires rely on an understanding of the situations in which such fires occur and either changing something about the environment or the community in order to prevent it happening in the future. For example, available evidence suggests that the risk of deliberate fires is higher during certain times of the year and week and that there are hotspots, most notably on the edge of urban areas. Operational data collected by fire agencies and police, or local knowledge, can be used to identify arson hotspots. Once an understanding of the features of bushfires is established, appropriate crime prevention techniques can be applied in order to reduce opportunities for setting them. Other strategies attempt to reduce bushfire arson by making it more difficult for deliberately lit fires to grow large or do damage. A number of fire agencies throughout Australia are looking at where arson attacks are occurring and using prescribed burns in areas at high risk of arson to reduce the effects of any illegal firesetting. Another strategy involves multiple government agencies working together to promptly remove abandoned cars from bushland areas so they are not set alight. Focusing on areas where there is a greater risk of bushfire arson and raising community awareness of the issues is a strategy that could build on existing bushfire prevention initiatives. In Western Australia, for example, the Fire and Emergency Services Authority has been running a targeted education program through schools, in shopping malls and by door knocking, in areas where there have been high numbers of fires. Another approach is to ensure there are interventions available for juveniles and adults caught deliberately lighting fires, to reduce the likelihood they will continue to do so. There are programs targeting young people who have shown a tendency for fire-setting now being run by fire agencies in all states and territories. There are, however, no specific programs for known adult offenders and more research is required to ascertain whether such programs are warranted or likely to be effective. Due to the very specific nature of bushfire arson, it is likely that arson prevention programs will require lateral and creative thinking, informed by the principles of crime prevention, by those with a good understanding of the local problem. Although there are a number of crime prevention approaches for preventing bushfire arson around Australia, these programs are often locality specific and have had little exposure beyond the local area. Also, many of these arson prevention strategies are quite new, and have not yet been thoroughly evaluated. Early signs are promising, however. Evaluation of prevention programs is important as it will allow other fire agencies to see what works and adapt the key elements to their own jurisdictions. Media and public attention to bushfire arson typically only occurs during the fire season, however bushfire arson is a year-round problem for Australia. Ongoing data collection through a national arson monitoring program would help us better understand the problem and formulate appropriate preventative responses. Arson prevention programs do not replace a criminal justice response to bushfire arson but rather complement it. Reducing the overall number of deliberate bushfires not only reduces the amount of damage they cause, it frees up resources to fight and investigate the most serious fires.
Understanding bushfire: trends in deliberate vegetation fires in Australia. Technical and background paper no 27, Australian Institute of Criminology, 2008.
Damon Muller, Using crime prevention to reduce deliberate bushfires in Australia. Research and public policy series no. 98, Australian Institute of Criminology, 2009.
Damon Muller is a researcher with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security at the Australian National University