Deliberately Lit Vegetation Fires in Australia

By Bryant, Colleen | Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Deliberately Lit Vegetation Fires in Australia


Bryant, Colleen, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice


Bushfire arson is an important issue in Australia, but studies analysing its prevalence and distribution are sparse and have focused on isolated areas or specific data collections. This paper summarises key findings of the Australian Institute of Criminology's extensive analysis of vegetation fires attended by Australian fire agencies, and represents the first attempt to quantify the extent of deliberately lit fires in Australia, focusing on when and where deliberate fires occur, and how their distribution varies as a function of natural and human factors. The study identifies the need for improved collection and integration of key data to inform both policy and practice. Despite the limitations of the empirical data, important implications for the management of fire and the prevention of ignitions are discussed. The paper notes the need to examine management practices along the urban interface including strategies to build community cohesion in rapidly growing population centres in these interfaces. It also highlights the need to develop ongoing resourced arson reduction strategies that effectively target broad sections of the community, while maintaining strategies that target specific offenders.

Toni Makkai

Director

With every Australian fire season, the media carries reports of bushfires that police and fire authorities believe were deliberately lit, but these represent just a fraction of all deliberate fires attended by fire services. While individual fire agencies are aware that deliberately lit fires are a problem in their jurisdiction, the complete picture has been lacking. Anecdotal information and, in some cases, data are shared between services. However, there has been limited collation of data or analysis at a state/ territory or national level. Hence, there have been limited opportunities for individuals or organisations to compare the incidence and trends in deliberately lit fires within their area with that observed in other regions, agencies or jurisdictions. The lack of a complete picture is likely to impact on how relevant agencies and government departments assess risk, the priorities that they assign to arson reduction and probably the effectiveness of the strategies that are introduced to mitigate risk.

This paper provides a summary of the key findings and implications from an analysis of approximately 280,000 fire incidents attended by 18 Australian fire services, typically within a five-year period (Bryant 2008). It focuses on the extent of, and potential factors responsible for, the temporal and spatial distribution of deliberately lit fires across Australia, particularly as they compare with non-deliberate fires.

Differences in the way fire causes are attributed - including differences in the number and proportion of fires of unknown cause, the way fires lit by children are classified (accidental versus malicious), as well as genuine differences in the principal causes of fires - may hamper effective integration of information across jurisdictional and interagency boundaries. While detailed knowledge of fire causes is necessary to implement efficient and targeted arson reduction strategies, there is a strong correlation between the increased incidences of deliberate fires and greater densities of fires generally. Even in the absence of rigorous causal information, total incidence data can provide a valuable guide to deliberate fire hot spots.

Number of fires

Fire services attend between 45,000 and 60,000 vegetation fires in Australia every year. These fires typically account for 40 to 50 percent of all fires attended. Most occur in New South Wales (36%), Queensland (21 %), Western Australia (1 5%) and Victoria (12%; 2002-03 to 2005-06; APC 2007).

Causes of fires

While Australia is particularly fire-prone, natural fires account for only six percent of known causes of vegetation fires attended by fire services. Over 90 percent are the result of people's actions, and more often than not the result of deliberate ignitions; incendiary (maliciously lit fires) and suspicious fires account for one-half of known fire causes in Australia, and are the largest single cause of vegetation fires (Figure 1). …

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