“FIRES WERE LIT BY THE HAND OF MAN”. ..BLACK FRIDAY INQUIRY JUDGE STRETTON
There is no evidence to suggest a correlation between the incidence or the ferocity of bush fires and climate change. Bush fires are no more prevalent today than what they were in the early 1900’s. While Australia is particularly fire-prone, natural fires account for only six percent of known causes of vegetation fires attended by fire services. At least 90 percent are the result of people’s actions.
More often than not the result of deliberate ignitions; incendiary (maliciously lit) and suspicious fires account for one-half of known fire causes in Australia, and are the largest single cause of vegetation fires. However, if we consider in this analysis that accidental fires, which account for 35 percent of all known vegetation fire causes, include those accidentally lit by children and smoking-related fires, the proportion of preventable vegetation fires is much higher. Forty percent of all fires attended across Australia do not have a cause assigned by the responding fire agency. Bush fire 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.
As most vegetation fires are caused by people, their distribution is linked closely to human populations. Vegetation fires are not a phenomenon that is restricted to vegetated, sparsely populated areas of regional and rural Australia. While many Australians live in fear of the scenario where bushfires emerge out of the bush to threaten homes and lives, most vegetation fires in Australia result from the flow-on effects of human populations into neighbouring natural landscapes. Between one-third and one-half of all vegetation fires attended by fire services in any state or territory occur in and around the capital city, with the greatest concentrations evident in the broad zone along the urban interface – the zone where people and vegetation coexist and interact. Similarly, high numbers of vegetation fires are associated with major regional centres, compared with neighbouring rural areas.
Conservation areas and forestry resources located next to urban areas, areas of population growth and expansion, or otherwise higher densities of people are vulnerable to increased fire-related problems. These include incendiarism and/or careless and reckless behaviour, such as increased instances of vegetation fires arising from torching of abandoned or stolen vehicles. Increased unplanned fire activity up to 10 km from the urban interface has been documented in highly vegetated areas of the Sydney basin (Davidson 2006). These results potentially have significant ecological implications. It may be insufficient to simply allocate a certain portion of land for the protection of specific ecosystems or species. To ensure that environmental values are preserved, additional measures may be required to minimise human impacts; for example, through the establishment of environment buffers, intelligent and innovative environmental design, education, and crime and safety measures.
It is difficult to accurately assess the number and proportion of fires started by children. This reflects both the problems associated with identifying the person responsible for a fire and limitations in the way that fires started by children are recorded in existing database structures. With the exception of some land management agencies, specific data were only available for instances where children had been implicated in accidentally causing the fire. Children were responsible for up to 24 percent of known fire causes by individual agencies, with the highest rates being reported by metropolitan/urban fire services. However, children under 16 years of age are likely to be significant contributors to the incidence of vegetation fires in all jurisdictions. The role of children in lighting fires is shown in the higher than predicted numbers of both deliberate and accidental fires between 3 pm and 6 pm, Monday to Friday. The inability to accurately identify the number and distribution of fires started by children is of concern, as it hinders the ability of fire services to evaluate the need for, and effectiveness of, interventions and education programs for children and adolescents who are likely to light fires.
Smoking-related activities are a common cause of non-deliberate, but preventable, fires attended by urban fire services (commonly 3 to 14%), but comprise a low proportion of all fires attended by rural fire services and land management agencies (1 to 4%). Markedly higher rates of smoking-related fires exist in metropolitan cities, particularly in inner city areas. For example, 41 percent of all fires attended by the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board, an agency whose jurisdiction is restricted to metropolitan Melbourne, were identified as smoking-related. Comparable rates are observed in inner city areas of Perth and Brisbane. Higher rates of smoking-related fires in urban areas coincide with greater population densities, resulting in a greater density of smokers and discarded cigarettes, and a greater prevalence of loose, highly combustible mulch in roadside and other urban landscaping.
Deliberate fire hot spots are characterised by high rates of fires per person, and commonly account for a high proportion of fires in a region, and potentially in a state or territory. High fire concentrations are evident across all agencies with responsibilities in the vicinity of the hot spot, so a genuine picture of the incendiary activity can only be achieved by combining data from each of the relevant agencies. These hot spots are commonly located on the outer fringes of metropolitan areas, although regional examples also occur, and they generally lie within the broad zone along the urban interface. These communities are commonly characterised by a relatively low median age and/or a high proportion of young persons and, commonly, are socioeconomically disadvantaged (Nicolopoulos et al. 1997). In many instances, these are also areas characterised by a greater concentration of other problematic and antisocial behaviours.
Rapid urban expansion
Areas of rapid urban expansion on the margins of metropolitan and regional centres commonly fall under the jurisdiction of rural services until a sufficient population density is reached and fire service provision boundaries are altered. Rapid increases in total fire numbers, commonly as a result of increased numbers of deliberate fires, place great strain on rural fire services, which rely principally on the efforts of volunteers. In many instances, these services may already face personnel shortages as a result of their aging population base, and face difficulties in recruiting and retaining new members at least in part due to the time required.
Generally, between 20 to 50 percent more deliberate, and 20 to 40 percent more accidental fires occur on Saturday and Sunday compared with weekdays, but locally higher values can be observed. Analysis of accidental fires indicates daily differences in fire attendances throughout the whole week are linked strongly to specific causes (e.g. use of recreational facilities). Similar relationships are likely to exist for deliberate fires, but there is limited capacity to investigate this possibility.
The timing of fires varies depending on the cause. Fires started by lightning potentially occur at any time of the day, but most natural fires coincide with the hot conditions conducive to thunderstorm activity, between midday and 6 pm. While impacted by natural forces, the timing of human-caused vegetation fires are related strongly to the timetables of people, whether they are day-to-day activities relating to work, school, shopping, or other personal or social activities. Surprisingly, almost one-quarter of all vegetation fires in Australia are attended between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am.
The timing of accidental and deliberate fires, and the extent of differences between the two, may vary between brigades, agencies and jurisdictions depending on variations in the principal causes of fires, and also on differences in the way specific causes (e.g. fires started by children) are classified.
A higher proportion of all deliberate fires (on average, 48%) occur between 6 pm and 6 am, compared with non-deliberate fires (on average, 30%). During the day, deliberate fires peak between 3 pm and 6 pm, while accidental fires peak slightly earlier, between 1 pm and 4 pm. The window between 3 pm and 6 pm on weekdays reflects the time in which younger persons often travel unaccompanied by an adult through their local environment. On weekends, peak numbers of deliberate fires occur between 1 pm and 4 pm.
Deliberate fires at night – between 6 pm and 6 am – are most evident in urban and semi-urban environments, and primarily occur between Friday night and Saturday morning and Saturday night and Sunday morning in most jurisdictions (20 to 50%). The timing of night fires is highly variable at a local scale, probably due to local variations in social and cultural patterns of human activity, which govern when, where and how people interact with their local environment. The overall timing of fires started by children varies with age, such that by 13 to 16 years the patterns are virtually indistinguishable from general deliberate fire distributions.