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The real cost of bushfire arson

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8 January 2013

Monash researchers will examine a proposed link between chemicals used at the Country Fire Authority\\\\\\\'s Fiskville training base

by Dr Janet Stanley

Arson is Australia’s most costly crime, particularly bushfire arson. This cost includes loss of life, injury, psychological and social upheaval, personal financial loss, business and regional economic loss, damage to roads, schools and other infrastructure, environmental destruction which includes loss of species and biodiversity, and the massive release of greenhouse gases.

It is suggested that of the 60,000 fires which occur in Australia’s bush each year, one third to a half are deliberately lit. Some believe that this proportion is much higher. In the absence of major action, these costs will only rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007) predicts that in south-east Australia, the frequency of very high and extreme fire danger days is likely to rise between 4 and 25 per cent by 2020 and between 15 and 70 per cent by 2050.

This increase in fire danger is likely to be associated with a reduced interval between fires, increased fire intensity, a decrease in fire extinguishments and faster fire spread. The implication of this is that many more fires which have been deliberately lit will become more dangerous.

Population growth also increases fire risk, as it increases the numbers of people with an interest in lighting fires and adds population in peri-urban areas and closer to forests. This is a particular concern where disadvantaged communities are created at the city edge, with affordable housing but poor transport, poor educational and employment opportunities, especially for youth. Youth unemployment and under-employment is a significant problem in Australia, with unemployment sitting at 12 per cent and under-employment an additional 14.3 per cent for 15-24 year olds, in May 2009. There is a known association between unemployment and serious social problems, including mental illness and crime.

Little is known about arsonists. There is a low probability of apprehension and punishment of arsonists and the lack of suitable treatment programs. The gaps in our knowledge and our inadequate responses to bushfire arson are greatly out of proportion to the impacts of bushfire arson. The substantial time and resources put into post-fire recovery would be much reduced if more attention and resources were devoted to prevention.

Significant new thinking is needed around bushfire arson prevention, aimed at structural, service design and operational levels and supported by research and evaluation of impacts.

Structural measures relate to how we are structuring our society and built environment. Serious review is needed in terms of population size and location, and the structure of our cities and towns, where we are creating significant pockets of disadvantage. These locations don’t provide sufficient opportunities in terms of employment, transport, leisure and quality of life – issues to be tackled in urban planning programs.

The failure to provide sufficient and effective services is a problem. Child abuse and neglect is rising and there are links between the experience of abuse and the desire to start fires.

There is a significant under-supply of mental health services for youth and adults, including targeted services to prevent and treat the desire to light fires.

A lack of resources prevents a comprehensive investigation of arson crimes. Priority is given to major bushfires, when it is likely to be only chance and environmental conditions as to whether a lit fire becomes a small, one square metre event or a 10,000 square kilometre event.

There is a need to change cultures within organisations and communities, moving to a position where strong suspicion about lighting inclinations can be given appropriate attention. This will need both clear and supportive reporting channels, systems which can appropriately review this suspicion, and available services to address confirmed problematic behaviour. Local communities need to be fully engaged and supported in this process.

A reduction in bushfire arson needs transformational, rather than incremental, change across all points which lead to motivational and situational risks for arson, as well as the structures we create to lower these risks. Not least of these is a far more effective response to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Janet Stanley is Chief Research Officer at the Monash Sustainability Institute.