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Why People Start Bushfires

Australia is one of the most fire prone places on Earth.

As we have seen over the last week or so, with warmer weather and climate change comes disastrous bushfires -- along with the terrible loss of life and destruction of homes.

But what do we make of the shocking revelations that some of the recent fires may have been deliberately lit?

Who are these bushfire arsonists? What motivates them? Can anything be done to stop them?
The fire-starter demographic

There are limited statistics on the number of bushfires that are deliberately lit in Australia. A report prepared for the 2009 senate inquiry estimated that 25 to 50 percent were maliciously lit -- and US research indicated that 84 percent of wildfires between 1992 and 2012 were man-made.

Recklessness is another common theme in fire-starting literature. Children and adolescents in particular are fascinated by fire and their curiosity can lead to careless fire-setting -- and the spread of more dangerous bushfires.

In regard to deliberately lit fires, the Australian Institute of Criminology reviewed the evidence regarding arsonists in 2004 and found some common characteristics.

Fire-starters tended to be young, male, come from a dysfunctional family and have low educational achievement -- basically the profile of your typical criminal offender.

Fire-starters tend to be young, male, come from a dysfunctional family and have low educational achievement. (Image: Getty)

Certain personality disorders were noted as more common amongst arsonists including anti-social personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder, which was strongly correlated with attention-seeking behaviour.

Social isolation and low intelligence also appear to be a common characteristic amongst arsonists.

Stuart Dean Robson, who was convicted of setting bushfires in Victoria in 2017 when he was 49, was diagnosed by a forensic psychologist at sentencing with a “socially inadequate personality” and was said to have used fire-setting as a means of emotional expression.

Why do they do it?

The motivations of arsonists vary greatly, with much of the research focussing on urban settings where insurance scams and revenge-motivated fire setting is more common.

Although much has been written about sexually motivated pyromaniacs who set fires for sexual kicks, this is not seen as a common motivation for bushfire arson. Rather, bushfire arsonists are more motivated by excitement, boredom relief or the desire for recognition or attention.

Malicious fire setting by children and adolescents is usually done to express intense personal feelings such as anger or to attract attention by adults. (Usually, children below the age of 10 are considered legally incapable of intending to commit a crime.)

A not common but surprising subtype of bushfire arsonist is volunteer firefighters, who are motivated by the opportunity to “play the hero” once a fire is lit.

Strikeforce Tronto, set up by NSW Police to investigate the causes of bushfires in that state, charged 50 people -- 11 of them were volunteers in the NSW Rural Fire Service.

More commonly though, the true ‘motive’ of a bushfire arsonist is simply recklessness.

Brendan Sokaluk, who was convicted of starting one of the major fires during Black Saturday in 2009 was smoking whilst driving on a gravel road when he accidentally lit a piece of paper on fire and threw it out the window.

"I panicked," he said. "And I called 000 and I just tried to get away as quick as possible, just panicked.”

In 2012, Brendan Sokaluk, a former volunteer firefighter, was sentenced to almost 18 years in prison for killing 10 people in the Churchill fire. (Image: AAP)
Can we prevent arsonists from starting bushfires?

Stopping bushfire arsonists is difficult, as lighting fires in the dry Australian landscape is terrifyingly easy to do.

The Australian Institute of Criminology has noted the potential impact of media reporting on arsonist activity, writing: "Media attention may encourage those people who start bushfires in the hope of gaining rewards and recognitions."

In particular the paper cautions against media speculation that any one fire was caused by arson without evidence as this can motivate offenders and lead to complacency amongst those who live in bushfire prone areas.

Further recommendations for prevention include the use of psychological screening tools for firefighters and greater public education on how to spot suspicious activity.