Deaths ’empower arsonists’

Deaths ’empower arsonists’

16 October 2009

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Australia — Arsonists could be encouraged by the destruction of Black Saturday to try to trigger a similar bushfire disaster this summer.

The Black Saturday royal commission was told yesterday that this small group of arsonists was indifferent towards causing death. Rather than being deterred by the horrific death toll from February 7, they could see causing such a disaster as a chance to empower themselves.

“I’ve seen people who have caused death to one or more people in different circumstances and sometimes there is quite an indifference to that,” said forensic psychologist James Ogloff.

“For a small group of people, they would be either indifferent to that or that would become quite attractive. Imagine for these individuals how powerful it would be to have seen the destruction they can cause.”

Professor Ogloff, who is head of Victoria’s state forensic psychiatric service and director of Monash University’s centre for forensic behavioural science, said bushfire arsonists could also become excited by total fire ban days and see them as opportunities to light fires with little chance of being caught.

He said he had dealt with arsonists or “fire setters” for whom days of high fire danger “enacts some of the thinking around setting fires”.

“What better time than when there are already fires all around and difficult to control then for them to go and set a fire which would have relatively little chance of them being caught,” Professor Ogloff said.

“At the time of these fires, and certainly in the days leading up to it, there is an increased interest, and in fact we have seen in some cases increased behaviour in the fire setting. So it is a problem.”

A number of Black Saturday bushfires under investigation by the royal commission are suspected of being deliberately lit, including the Murrindindi fire that killed 40 people and destroyed more than 500 homes.

Professor Ogloff said that at peak times, up to 80 per cent of fires in Australia were either deliberately lit or suspicious.

He said there was no single profile of bushfire arsonists, but they were more likely to be “social outcasts”, physically unattractive, lacking confidence and of low intelligence who may have a mental disorder and prior criminal convictions.

Bushfires were lit for a range of reasons, including arsonists attempting to increase their self-esteem or feel “in control of an otherwise dismal existence”.

Lighting bushfires could be a “particularly empowering experience”, causing arsonists to become serial offenders to regain that feeling.

Professor Ogloff said potential arsonists could be attracted to working as volunteer firefighters and go on to light fires, in some cases because they wanted to be seen as heroes. A study in NSW showed that 11 of 50 convicted arsonists were found to have been fire service volunteers.

He said criminal background checks and psychological screening would reduce the risk of arsonists becoming firefighters.

The hearing into the Black Saturday disaster, which killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2000 homes, resumes on Monday.

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