Australia — The deliberate setting of bushfires is one of the most costly crimes committed in Australia.
But police, firefighters and researchers agree that little is known about the motivation of arsonists and how to tackle the crime.
A conference starting in Melbourne today is hoping to come up with ground-breaking plans to reduce bushfire arson.
Monash University researchers estimate that as many as half of Australia’s bushfires are deliberately lit.
Yet the university’s Dr Janet Stanley says little is known about bushfire arson.
“It’s quite strange in some ways why Australia hasn’t put more funding into understanding what is probably the most costly crime in Australia,” she said.
“It has so many profound impacts on people. And if we could solve and reduce this considerably then a lot of the distress that’s caused by bushfires would be lessened.”
Police, firefighters, academics and psychologists are among those gathering in Melbourne over the next couple of days to try and develop a plan to cut down the number of deliberately lit fires.
It is the first conference of its type in Australia and it will look at issues like the profile of offenders, the low arrest rates, treatment programs and the response of the legal system.
Janet Stanley says the changing nature of Australian cities is another factor to be considered.
“Bushfire arson often occurs in the areas around the major cities where there is disadvantage in communities,” she said.
“And the spread particularly in Melbourne and some of the bigger metropolitan areas out into these bush areas certainly there’s suggestions that the problem of arson may increase because of this reason.”
Dr Rebekah Doley is a clinical and forensic psychologist at Bond University.
She says Australia needs to have better risk assessment processes, particularly for arsonists released from jail.
And she wants to see treatment programs for arsonists established both in jails and in the community.
“We have no treatment programs available for adult arsonists. So when we put people in prison we just cross our fingers and hope for the best in terms of rehabilitation.”
“Looking at the research, it appears that best practice would involve a group-based as well as an individual program.”
Dr Doley says the problems is that it is hard to get a group of arsonists together at the same time.
“So what we propose is to have developed an individual-based arson treatment program, that specifically addressed the fire setting behaviour, that could be run one-on-one within correctional facilities,” she said.
“We would like to extend that into the community as a community-based program run by practitioners dealing with parolees.”