Australia handles 60,000 bushfires every year, half of which are deliberately lit. ‘Hang the bastards’, we all say. ‘Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!’ ‘Burn ‘em at the stake and see how they like it!’
These are public comments from the latest round of the Arson Reporting Survey that we run with Crime Stoppers Victoria. I can sympathise. I live in a bushfire area and have direct experience of the devastation wrought on communities by reckless and deliberate fires. Yet I always hesitate to damn the alleged arsonist without further information.
We have a century of mythology to contend with. Arsonists are rarely 28-year old males with a sexual fetish attached to unbridled destruction through fire. The sexuality of arson was proposed in 1905 based on just a few individuals and later explored in the 1950s. But when you look closely at the Australian data, the sexualised 28-year old male ‘pyromaniac’ vanishes like smoke.
One group is male, over-40, usually violent and alcoholic, living on the edge of society. Although mostly unintelligent, one or two can be devious, disturbed and bitter. They need locking up.
But the other group is children, many of which need help long before they strike a match. As police, firefighters and judges know, not one case is the same when it comes to children or youth. Bushfires are rarely intentional when the normal fire-play of children gets out of control or when it overlaps with some disorders like autism. Fire-setting can also emerge as a confused alternative to self-harm or suicide in response to child abuse. So there can be a moral grey area balancing catastrophic outcomes with less malicious intentions.
This makes reporting arson one of the most complicated fields in the criminal literature. Those in the best place to report vulnerable kids before they light big fires are relatives, neighbours and teachers. But many reporters might not report if they think the public, media or legal system will further harm young lives that are already vulnerable.
Only one in four groups under the age of 21 deliberately sets out to cause havoc. This group has precursors of adult psychopathy such as lack of empathy (harming animals is one sign), most have grown up with alcoholism and family violence, many struggle at school and have high levels of impulsivity. Some of these are related to social pressures on communities and families.
Important work is being done with Crime Stoppers Victoria in relation to supporting community involvement in arson prevention. This work needs more support from governments at all levels.
Australia has often led the way in social behaviour change through taxation, fines, tougher legislation and fear-based advertising. Yet this kind of approach now tends to apply more, not less, pressure on vulnerable families.
Bushfire arson, along with more family violence and substance abuse, will only increase if our approach doesn’t move towards more intelligent, community-wide prevention long before catastrophe strikes.
Yes, fault lies with the act of an individual but bushfires are also related to how we vote, how we plan and build, how we protect families, nourish children and support youth.
More than ever, we need to make some clever changes as life becomes harder, the planet grows hotter and bushfire seasons come earlier.
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