Understanding bushfire: trends in deliberate vegetation fires in Australia

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TitleUnderstanding bushfire: trends in deliberate vegetation fires in Australia
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsBryant, C
Series TitleAIC publication
Date Published1/16/2008
InstitutionAustralian Institute of Criminology
Accession NumberBF-1218
Abstract Australia is the most fire-prone continent and country on Earth. In any one year numerous fires burn hundreds of thousands to millions of hectares of savannas, other grasslands, bushland and forests. While fire is an essential component of many ecosystems, a natural instrument for maintaining biodiversity and hence a tool that enables many species to survive, not all fires are natural or beneficial. Humans play a significant role in modifying the timing, frequency and size of bushfires, in some cases to the detriment of the environment and to the endangerment of property and human life. While some human-caused fires are for the purposes of managing the environment, protecting human life and property, or the result of accidental actions, many fires occur through negligence, carelessness, mischievousness, or outright maliciousness, with little regard for either the environment or people who might be adversely affected. It is this latter group of fires – herein referred to as deliberate ignitions – that forms the central theme of this report. This report represents the first concerted effort to establish plausible rates of illegal firesetting in vegetation across Australia. The term plausible is emphasised, as this is inherently an imprecise science. There are intrinsic difficulties in determining the causes of bushfires. In some cases there may be little evidence to confirm or deny whether a fire was deliberate, accidental or natural in origin. The relative isolation and concealment offered by bushland means there are few witnesses to the act. In many cases, firefighters or investigators will develop a suspicion that a fire was deliberately lit based on the location, timing or other circumstances, or in the absence of another feasible explanation. In light of the uncertain nature of these determinations, any assessment of the rates of deliberate firesetting must be regarded as partially speculative, and therefore an estimate only. The report is based on vegetation fire data supplied by a large number of fire agencies across Australia. Although this report is intended to provide an overview of incidence, cause, timing and location of bushfires in Australia, in many cases the data agencies provided includes all fires that burned vegetation, irrespective of size. These are equivalent to the landscape fires documented in the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission report on Emergency Management (APC 2007). The implication is that that analysis includes bushfires but also any other vegetation fire attended by fire agencies. These may be fires in suburban parkland, along roadsides, hedgefires, or fires on a football oval. There is no clear means, within many databases, for distinguishing when a vegetation fire constituted a bushfire. Hence, this report examines the propensity for deliberate firesetting in vegetation in general as opposed to bushfires specifically. The nature of this report is technical, providing a basis for guiding research and policies adopted by fire agencies, other researchers and interested individuals. The technical nature of the report reflects the fact that in many instances the nature of the information provided by fire services is itself complex. Also there are inherent difficulties associated with attempting to source, collate and analyse multiple databases from different time periods, database structures, variable lists, etc. In order to maintain the highest level of data integrity, the data from individual agencies have been analysed separately. Although strict comparisons across agencies are typically not possible, the adoption of a common set of themes in analysis allows similarities and differences in the overall incident, timing, distribution, etc. of fires to be highlighted. However, it is not possible to entirely replicate this across agencies, as subtle differences exist in the structure of databases and the structure of fire agencies within each jurisdiction. These differences subsequently affect interpretations that can be placed on the data. This report forms the basis for a number of smaller publications that will summarise the key findings of the document.
URL http://www.aic.gov.au/documents/A/A/3/%7BAA340178-276D-48A4-AC80-04755141FFB1%7Dtbp027.pdf