The Australian Institute of Criminology reported last month that half of Australian bushfires are deliberately lit. Bushfire research needs to go further to evaluate whether in fact of the most damaging most are deliberately lit.
Test: If one excluded arson ignitions and their related spotover fires (between 29 Jan at Delburn to 8 Feb) would the firestorms have occurred? Assuming the answer is no, then clearly arson must be Australia's key focus in combating the impacts of bushfire. Unlike the other two causes of bushfire, (lightning and accident) which are random, bush arson targets the worst conditions, upwind of a specific target and often involving multiple ignitions.
The term 'fire bug' is too docile and to start seriously dealing with it, we must change the perception and the language. Bush arson has become so deadly and catastrophic a crime that it warrants the term 'pyroterrorism'. See the application of this term in the recent California fires.
The forthcoming Royal Commission into the Victorian Bushfires of 2009 risks concluding similar theme recommendations as the 2004 COAG Enquiry into the 2003 Canberra Firestorm, which itself repeated those of many previous bushfire enquiries. The implementation of any recommendations requires budget, timeframe and an independent federal watchdog accountable to the public. I will be analysing its terms of reference.
Aside from serious resourcing of bush fire fighting (nationalising it, building approvals, building codes, etc), the key systemic problem is the cultural disconnect between bushfire research and fire fighting practice. Criminal arson investigation needs to be a permanent and dedicated arm of bushfire management, properly resourced with primary data collected from all Australia and overseas using the best criminal psychologists and with a proactive mandate.
In NSW, the government set up Strike Force Tronto to investigate serial bush arsonist after the Christmas 2001 bushfires. Then the government got complacent, other priorities emerged and it was disbanded in 2005. But following a series of arson bushfires in 2006 (with houses lost in (Picton and Cattai) the force was reinstated on 26 Sep 06 (Daily Telegraph p1). Reactive sporadic resourcing of bush arson investigation clearly isn't effective.
To seriously address the main cause of deadly bushfires, a national organisation needs to be permanently established and perpetually funded to focus on criminal investigation into bush arson/pyroterrorism with a mandate to recommend deterrent policies and practices across Australian bushfire fighting as well as the media.
Media reporting leading up to the 7-Feb-09 firestorms, simply incited dormant serial arsonists. Go back and read The Age and television media in the days before and after 29 Jan when the first bush arsonist struck at Delburn (south wast of Churchill). The front page of The Age on Saturday 7-Feb-09 read: '44 degree heat "as bad a day as you can imagine"
- which was a quote from of all people the Victorian Premier made to the general public the day prior.
Just like the media policy of not reporting suicides due it being known to encourage copy cats, so too media reporting of heatwaves and of extreme bushfire conditions needs to be tempered to avoid inciting dormant serial arsonists.
This was a submission to the ABC TV Four Corners programme on the Victorian Bushfires ‘Two Days in Hell’ by reporter Quentin McDermott, ahead of it being aired Monday 16-Feb-09.