The psyche of the bushfire arsonist

The psyche of the bushfire arsonist

12 October 2007

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The Australian bush plays an important role in our national identity. Generations of poets, musicians and artists have attempted to capture the spirit of the bush. Why then on a hot dry summer’s day would someone want to strike a match and start a bushfire?

Research analyst Damon Muller from the Australian Institute of Criminology’s Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre is part of a team that has been analysing Australian fire agency data in the hope of identifying trends and patterns on deliberately lit fires. “Looking at the picture Australia wide we find that about half of all bushfires for which there is a cause contributed are deliberately lit”.

The reasons why a person would light a bushfire are different to those that would motivate a person to light other sorts of fires. “In general people light structural fires for reasons like revenge, concealing a crime, or for insurance money. We think that bushfire arsonists are motivated by more psychological reasons. Certainly revenge can be one of them, but in some circumstances it might be to create excitement, or relieve boredom, or even lighting a fire and warning people so that they play the hero”. Part of the attraction is that the arsonist can mobilise a huge public response by a simple and small action.

Deliberately lit fires follow a number of patterns. “There are more deliberately lit fires in areas where there are more people. We also find that deliberately lit fires tend to be smaller than natural fires, but they are potentially more dangerous because they are so close to where people live”. From analysing the times and days that bush fires occur the Australian Institute of Criminology has been able to identify that fires are more likely to be lit on weekends and from 4pm on weekday afternoons. “Fires in the afternoon may be more likely to be school children which suggests that increased education programs might be appropriate in helping to reduce fires.

Catching and prosecuting an offender is a difficult task. “We looked recently at some statistics of arsonists in NSW and there were hundreds every year, not thousands. That’s a lot less people caught than there are fires deliberately lit”. Rather than relying on the fire agencies catching the offenders and prosecuting them the data that Damon and his team are collecting will hopefully help to prevent some of the fires from occurring. “We can feed this information to the fire agencies and that way they can plan for fuel reduction. If they can organise prescribed burns in an area that we know is visited by serial arsonists, well then there won’t be nearly as much for the arsonist to set alight”.

The Australian Institute of Criminology analysis of fire agency data will be publicly released at the beginning of the 2007 – 2008 bush fire season.

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