There are, on average, 62,000 fires in Australia every year. Only a very small number strike far from populated areas and satellite studies tell us that lightning is responsible for only 13 per cent. Not so the current fires threatening to engulf Queensland and NSW. There were no lightning strikes on most of the days when the fires first started in September. Although there have been since, these fires – joining up to create a new form of mega-fire – are almost all man-made.
About 40 per cent of fires are deliberately lit ... The Hillville fire that destroyed homes last week. CREDIT:NICK MOIR
A 2015 satellite analysis of 113,000 fires from 1997-2009 confirmed what we had known for some time – 40 per cent of fires are deliberately lit, another 47 per cent accidental. This generally matches previous data published a decade earlier that about half of all fires were suspected or deliberate arson, and 37 per cent accidental. Combined, they reach the same conclusion: 87 per cent are man-made.
The cycles of the seasons are changing beyond that which can be explained by known forces, both ancient and modern. Every lethal wildfire since 1857 has happened at the height of summer. Until now. The size of these fires has never been seen in Australia's history this side of summer, and certainly not starting as early as September.
Seasonal changes, in part due to climate change on top of natural oscillations causing the drought and westerly winds, have some origins in man-made emissions. More directly, however, the source of ignition is human.
It's not lost on police, emergency services and firefighters at the front line that most of these fires were lit deliberately, or accidentally through recklessness, nor that they are unprecedented in their timing and ferocity. Since September, it has been a constant pattern that a few days after the fires roar through we have the first police reports that arson or recklessness was involved.
The mix of people lighting fires always follow the same age and gender profiles: whether accidental or deliberate, half are children, a minority elderly, and the most dangerous are those aged between 30 and 60. Ninety per cent are male.
The psychosexual pyromaniac has long been relegated to dusty tomes from 1904 to the 1950s. At least among those caught, the profile emerges of an odd, unintelligent person from a chaotic family, marginalised at the fringes of society and deeply involved in many types of crime, not only fire.
If I had to guess, I'd say about 10,000 arsonists lurk from the top of Queensland to the southern-most tip of Victoria, but not all are active and some light fires during winter. The most dangerous light fires on the hottest days, generally closer to communities and during other blazes, suggesting more malicious motives. Only a tiny minority will gaze with wonder at the destruction they have wrought, deeply fascinated and empowered. Others get caught up with the excitement of chaos and behave like impulsive idiots.
As for children, they are not always malicious. Children and youths follow the age-crime curve where delinquency peaks in their late teens. Fire is just one of many misbehaviours. The great majority grow out of it. Four overlapping subgroups include: accidental fire-play getting out of control; victims of child abuse – including sexual abuse – and neglect; children with autism and developmental disorders; and conduct disorder from a younger age, which can be genuinely dangerous.
Whereas the first three groups can be helped and stopped, the last is more problematic. These children are more likely to continue lighting fires for a lifetime, emerging as psychopaths in adulthood. This tends to match the finding that only 10 per cent of convicted arsonists will go on to light fires again after prison. They are the recidivists, more fascinated by fire, more prone to giving in to dangerous urges when in crisis, more impulsive, less empathic – the hallmarks of a psychopath.
Some research suggests only a very small percentage of arsonists are ever caught, which has several implications.
One is that we have a biased profile of who they really are. Whereas the children and the dopey get caught, the more cunning would be less represented in our samples. More ominous, many more than 10,000 arsonists might be active.
One of the few prospective studies of almost 3000 fire lighters in South Australia alone found as many as 14 per cent of people in a community sample lit fires. This level is much higher than actual convictions would suggest. Further to this, community sampling suggests females represent 20 per cent of those fire lighters, even though convictions of females are only half this figure. If this trend continues into adulthood, it suggests we have a biased view of the typical arsonist to begin with.
Those we haven't caught yet are still hiding, but we know enough to recognise them and, one day, maybe stop them.
In the thick of a deadly crisis, it beggars belief that some people would seek to make it worse. But we should be careful who we demonise. Not all children mean to do harm. Careful handling of them will reduce, not exacerbate, their problems and allow caregivers to refer them before the first match is struck.
Emergency services and communities on the front line will shine a light on the very best of humanity; others will disgrace themselves through idiocy or malice. Amid the chaos of confronting fires, the psychopath forever looms – not only the criminals who light fires in the forests and grasslands but perhaps also, figuratively, the people who profit from planetary destruction and ignore the urgent warnings of 23 emergency commissioners to prepare.
When the flames abate, we can have a sensible national dialogue about the prevention of wildfires, handling arson, and maybe even climate change.
Paul Read is an ecological criminologist and sustainability scientist at Monash University.
Dr Paul Read is a Senior Lecturer, School of Psychological Sciences at Monash University.