Australia– Surveillance of known and suspected arsonists, camera monitoring of bushfire-prone areas and random patrols of high-risk locales are among the bushfire-prevention strategies being pursued by NSW authorities this fire season.
Arson prevention was the focus of the inaugural National Bushfire Arson Forum, held in March after Victoria’s Black Saturday fires.
The forum focused on an Australian Institute of Criminology report, which recommended that crime prevention strategies be used to combat deliberately lit bushfires.
The author of the report, an Australian National University criminologist Damon Muller, said bushfire arson was a relatively easy crime to commit but difficult to detect and prosecute.
“If we rely on the criminal justice system to control arsonists, it’s going to miss a lot of them,” Dr Muller said. “We have to start looking at approaches to prevent arson.
“Tight co-operation between the police and the fire services is going to be important both as a way of identifying arson when it happens and [as a deterrent by] presenting to the community that it is a crime and it is taken seriously.”
About half of all vegetation fires – up to 30,000 each year – are deliberately lit or suspicious.
Arson hotspots were reasonably easy to identify, Dr Muller said. Research showed there were more fires in socio-economically disadvantaged areas with high unemployment.
These areas often tended to be on the city’s fringes, where the suburbs met vulnerable bushland.
The typical firesetter in NSW was a white male, with an average age of 27. However, 31 per cent of bushfire arson offenders were under 18. The peak times for deliberately lit fires were between 1 to 4pm on weekends and between 3 to 6pm on weekdays, when children were moving around without adult supervision. Dr Muller recommended that police and firefighters target hotspots and potential firebugs by using information about offenders and fire patterns, sharing intelligence and harnessing their local knowledge.
The NSW Police Minister, Michael Daley, said a 60 per cent drop in the number of deliberately lit bushfires over the 2007-08 bushfire danger period, with a further drop last summer, was largely attributable to strategies aimed at stopping arsonists “before they get to the matchbox”.
Authorities are bracing for what could be the worst bushfire season in years, and police will be using cameras to monitor bushfire-prone areas around the state and will carry out surveillance on more than 50 convicted arsonists.
Mr Daley would not detail the techniques used to track known suspected arsonists, but said they included door-knocking and monitoring “at the bare minimum”.
The Emergency Services Minister, Steve Whan, said the Interagency Arson Committee – comprising the Rural Fire Service, NSW Fire Brigade and police – developed fire prevention strategies after examining the risks.
“The Interagency Arson Committee identifies target areas through intelligence and increased reporting.”
Local initiatives included police and the fire services sharing intelligence and conducting random patrols in high- risk areas by air and on the ground.
More than 100 Rural Fire Service investigators will work with police and other agencies to investigate the cause of fires. Last month they were given increased powers to secure evidence at fire scenes.
“Arsonists should be warned they’re being closely watched this fire season,” Mr Whan said.
“The chances of them being caught [are] greatly increased.”