Arson: Why Do People Start Bushfires?

bush fireSome are angry, others enjoy the spectacle, others simply act without thinking.

Whatever motivates them, firebugs who intentionally spark bushfires cost Australians a billion dollars a year and an immeasurable amount of fear and heartache.

Police investigating bushfires sweeping Victoria since the weekend now suspect firebugs were responsible for some of the blazes, and have checked in on more than 300 known arsonists to make sure they haven’t been up to no good.

“We’ve got over 300 of them on our list, and we go and knock on doors, tell them we’re in the area and make sure that we know they’re out and about,” Victoria’s chief police commissioner Graham Ashton told 3AW on Tuesday.

“We’re doing a lot of arson investigations.”

Police in Caboolture, north of Brisbane, said this week they were keeping an eye out on “strange people” who light fires “for fun” following recent fires there.

The West Australian emergency services minister Joe Francis went so far this year as to brand firebugs “urban terrorists” who committed acts of “complete bastardry” after data revealed arsonists were lighting 15 bushfires across the state every day.

Bushfire arsonists represent a very small subcategory of arsonists generally, who also include people who set fire to street rubbish or spark blazes for insurance rorts.

Though they are a relatively small group, bushfire arsonists are believed to be behind between 20,000 and 30,000 vegetation fires in Australia each year — that’s between one third and half of all vegetation fires.

The Australian Institute for Criminology puts the price tag on their destructive habits at about $1.6 billion a year.

Despite the potential widespread devastation caused by bushfire-setters, there is an incredible lack of knowledge about who they are and why they do it.

Poor funding and little interest in bushfire arson, especially outside fire season months, have left big gaps in research.

Dr Troy McEwan, lecturer in clinical and forensic psychology at Swinburne University of Technology, said the strongest recent research into arsonists had come from the UK. But because the UK had nothing like the bushfire problem we do, it was unknown how much of that research could apply here.

“We do know most people who commit arson are male and that’s representative of most crimes,” she told


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