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Know what? If I see another know-nothing denier try to claim “it’s not climate change it’s arson” or “backburning” or “not enough prescribed burns” or “it’s not happening”, I’ll scream.

I was going to deal quickly with “it’s arson”, then move onto prescribed or controlled burns. However, I’ll now devote this article just to the arson furphy, because the false meme is appearing all over the place, even being insinuated in mainstream media. Some people are suggesting it’s an organised disinformation campaign. I don’t know about that, but it is being fanned by the usual crowd of deniers, including many from the USA and other places outside Australia. [Edit: I’ve added a tweet below, which expresses my disdain for the people spreading this meme.]

Let me be clear. Arson is not the reason for the catastrophic fires this summer. There has always been arson but never a fire season as bad as this one. These major fires are there because the bush is so dry and because it’s been so hot. Fires need ample fuel, wind and an ignition. The fuel is ample, because even though there’s not been much growth in vegetation because of the drought, what’s there is dry and easily ignited. There’ve been enough windy days to fan the flames and spread the fires further. And there’s been ignition, obviously. Mostly (in the case of the major fires), the ignition has been lightning.

Most major bushfires in Australia are started by lightning

Most major bushfires (forest fires) in Australia are ignited by lightning. They typically start in bushland that is difficult to access.

At a recent community meeting we were told the fires around here in north eastern Victoria were ignited by lightning. I saw some of the lightning.

The fire in Mallacoota was also reportedly started by lightning.

The huge Gospers Mountain fire in Wollemi National Park in NSW was started by lightning.

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Update – there’s more:

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On 8 January 2003 there were 87 fires ignited by lightning, eight of which persisted and led to the with huge Alpine fires that year.

Lightning fires are a risk in summer in south eastern Australia. We can get lightning at any time of the year. In winter, which is our wet season, fires don’t normally take hold. In winter, lightning is usually accompanied by rain and, in any case, the temperature is low and the bush is not as dry so fires don’t spread far.

Summer is our dry season. Lightning storms can pass through with very little or no rain. Not every lightning strike will cause a fire. It depends on what’s been struck. However, it only takes one tree catching fire and it will spread quickly if conditions are right.

This summer has seen the hottest weather ever and much of south eastern Australia is very dry, with large parts having been in drought for some years. Conditions for wildfires have been almost perfect. This has resulted in a huge increase in the number of fires in NSW. There has also been an enormous area burnt in eastern Victoria though the chart (see below) from GFED to 3 January 2020 doesn’t reflect this. (It shows number of fires not area burnt.)

The area burnt in Victoria in 2003 (>1.3 million ha or 3.2m acres) can be seen here, and the area burnt in 2006 (~1.2 million ha or 3m acres) is shown here. So far this year, it’s estimated the fires in Victoria have burnt more than 1.2 million hectares.  The fires in Australia this season are estimated to have burnt at least 8.4 million hectares including 4.9 million ha in NSW.

Bushfires also create their own weather, and can even make lightning as described in an article by the Bureau of Meteorology:

Let me stress again, most of these large fires this summer were ignited by lightning. They have been exacerbated by climate change. Regardless, no matter what the source of ignition, whether natural, accidental, careless, reckless or deliberate, if conditions (dryness, heat and wind) had not been what they are, there would not have been anything like the catastrophe the world has seen unfolding in Australia.

Another thing worth considering is that sources of ignition are unlikely to have changed much over time. On the other hand, fire response has improved out of sight over the years, with huge advances in communications, fire-fighting technology and equipment, training and response management. If not for climate change making bad conditions worse, these fires would not have been anything like they are.

Why the deflection from deniers?

I don’t know why some people are promoting the “it’s arson” meme. Is it they can cope with the idea that people are capable of burning Australia by lighting a match but can’t cope with the idea that people are capable of changing the climate by burning fossil fuels? Who knows.

I’m not saying there are not people who deliberately light fires. There are. There are also people who accidentally cause fires. When caught, all such people are subject to heavy penalties. In my home state, a person who intentionally or recklessly causes a bushfire can be locked away for up to 15 years (in NSW it’s up to 21 years). A person caught lighting a fire that causes death can be sent to jail for up to 25 years.

Human activity can cause fires. Every year there could be hundreds of fires ignited by people, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Arsonists, people who deliberately light fires for whatever reason, exist and have probably always existed. They might want to collect insurance on a failed business or because they’ve overstretched their mortgage. They might be after revenge against someone so set their home or car alight. A few people just like fire, and set them in urban, peri-urban or, occasionally, rural areas. There have been homes burnt after arsonists lit fires.

There are fires caused accidentally by human activity. There were scores of lives lost in the East Kilmore fires after powerlines sparked a fire in strong winds on a catastrophic fire danger day. A recent fire that burnt Binna Burra Lodge in a precious area in Lamington National Park in Queensland has been attributed to a cigarette butt dropped by teenagers. The powerline fire and the cigarette fire wouldn’t have taken hold or caused so much damage if conditions had not been so extreme.

Most fires lit deliberately or accidentally by people are quickly contained

Few people would hike into virtually inaccessible areas to deliberately start a major bushfire. They’d have to be suicidal as well as pyromaniacal. Most people who deliberately light fires do so near areas of population, and they are generally grass fires that are extinguished fairly quickly. Not always, but mostly. A 2006 report states (my emphasis):

Human action – most deliberate bushfires occur within or near the most densely populated regions of Australia. Consequently, the majority of deliberate fires occur along the coastal fringe, where climatic conditions are generally milder, and the period of adverse bushfire weather is shorter. Although they have the potential to burn out of control and cause immense damage, overall, the majority of deliberately lit fires are small in area (less than one to two hectares)

Analysis of a number of different data sources indicates that the highest rates of recorded deliberately lit fires during adverse bushfire weather occur in areas, regions or jurisdictions with highest rates of recorded deliberate fires generally.

A key question for bushfire arson prevention is whether there is a greater risk of deliberate fire lighting during periods of extreme weather conditions. This is a difficult question to answer with any degree of accuracy, as many fires are suspicious but not confirmed as arson incidents, and the intention of those who light fires is rarely known. A range of data shows that as the fire danger rating increases, recorded deliberate fires account for a smaller proportion of all bushfires. The increased risk of accidental and natural fires under more adverse conditions and the absence of definitive data on causal factors means that there is a lack of conclusive evidence to indicate a systematic increase in deliberate firesetting during these peak periods of risk.

Use and abuse of statistics

Although by far the majority of “it’s arson” claims are unsubstantiated (and nonsense), I’ve seen people quote and misquote statistics from various sources, including some people who should know better. Let’s have a look.

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Update – Here is information on the latest stats from Victoria, after enquiries made by Josh Butler:

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Below is a chart showing arson offenses recorded, from the Crime Statistics Agency (Victorian Government). The bushfire arson is the bottom line (light grey). It peaks in the summer season, but that would probably be in part because fires lit in summer attract attention whereas fires lit at other times of the year go out quickly and/or don’t spread. (As always, click to enlarge.)

In the year ending 30 September 2016, “there were 46 unique offenders apprehended by police for bushfire offences. Of these offenders, more than half (n=26) were known to police for prior offending before committing their bushfire offence, and 16 had previously committed an arson or criminal damage offence before causing a bushfire. Bushfire offenders were predominantly male, making up 91.3 per cent (n=42) of all offenders, and 56.5 per cent (n=26) were aged between 10 and 19, with the mean age of 23.6.”

This number represents around 0.0074% of the population of Victoria at the time (6.2 million). There would also have been suspicious incidents where no-one was charged with an offense.

In NSW it’s been reported that 24 people have been charged with deliberately lighting bushfires this fire season. In addition, action has been taken against 53 people “for failing to comply with a total fire ban and against 47 people for discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land.”

There are suggestions a fire at Jindabyne last Friday may have been deliberately lit.

The report said that none of the fires currently on the south coast of NSW were related to those charges.

Although it was 24 people who’ve been charged with lighting fires, that SMH report said a total of 183 people had legal action taken against them, which might be the source of the mysterious “200 arsonists” that keep popping up. I don’t know what the missing numbers relate to (24+53+47=124), it could be that some people were charged with more than one offense. Edit: It’s been pointed out my speculation makes no sense and it doesn’t. I’ll try again. This report says “legal action” includes cautions, not just charges, so the missing numbers could be people cautioned not charged.

Another point worth making is to reiterate that most fires lit by people occur near populated areas, unlike the major fires currently in Victoria and NSW, which started in remote bushland. The word “bushfire” is often applied to mean any fire, including grass fires. I prefer to reserve the term bushfire to a fire in the bush (a forest). Grass fires are quite different. They travel much faster than bushfires but can also be contained more easily. (In remote areas of the outback, grassfires and desert scrub fires will usually be left to burn themselves out.)

More to come

There is a lot more that could be and is being written about this year’s fire season. There will be inquiries and maybe a Royal Commission or two. I’ll possibly write more myself. (I’m thinking about an article to dispel another lie that’s being pushed. Some deniers are blaming hazard reduction so as to avoid confronting how badly we’re changing the climate. Maybe I’ll get to that later.)

Note: Where I live there’s a Watch and Act in effect. That’s one step up from Advice and one step down from Evacuate Now. Our town, which should be full of tourists, feels strangely quiet. Visitors have left and so have a lot of residents. It’s not just the fire risk, it’s also the smoke which has prompted people to leave. We can avoid the fire risk by driving to a safe town 90 km or more distant. It’s not as easy to avoid the smoke because those same towns are also affected by smoke.

References and further reading

Arson in NSWan article from January 1990 from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (Arson is nothing new!)

Spotlight: Arson OffencesCrime Statistics Agency, Victoria, 2016

Bushfire weatherBureau of Meteorology, Australia

When bushfires make their own weatherBureau of Meteorology, Australia, January 2018

Bots and trolls spread false arson claims in Australian fires ‘disinformation campaign’article by Christopher Knaus at The Guardian, 7 January 2020

Fires misinformation being spread through social mediaABC News, 8 January 2020

Debunked Australian Bushfire Conspiracy Theories Were Pushed by Alex Jones, Murdoch Media – By Justin Mikulka at DeSmogBlog, Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Ducat, Lauren, Troy McEwan, and James RP Ogloff. “Comparing the characteristics of firesetting and non-firesetting offenders: are firesetters a special case?.” The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 24, no. 5 (2013): 549-569. https://doi.org/10.1080/14789949.2013.821514 (pdf here)

2019-20 Australian bushfire seasonMODIS data on the recent fires with historical comparisons, from the Global Fire Emissions Database. (h/t Graham Readfearn)

Record-breaking 4.9m hectares of land burned in NSW this bushfire seasonarticle by Naaman Zhou at The Guardian, 7 January 2009

Fires in Victoria destroy estimated 300 homes, former police chief to lead Bushfire Recovery Victoria – By Kevin Nguyen and Ariel Bogle at ABC News, 7 January 2019

Bushfires lit deliberately during adverse bushfire weatherBushfire Arson Bulletin, Australian Institute of Criminology, December 2006

Patterns in bushfire arsonBushfire Arson Bulletin, Australian Institute of Criminology, November 2009

Past bushfires – A chronology of major bushfires in Victoria from 2013 back to 1851Forest Fire Management, Victoria

Bushfire – Alpine Region and north-eastern VictoriaAustralian Institute for Disaster Resilience, January 2003

Fire Scars in Australia’s Simpson DesertNASA Earth Observatory, November 2002

120 years of Australian rainfallBureau of Meteorology interactive poster online

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