Peter Dutton, a former policeman whose Home Affairs portfolio includes the federal police, recently acknowledged that Australia was experiencing hotter weather and longer summers.
But in a February 5 interview with ABC TV presenter Patricia Karvelas, he posed the question: did the bushfires start in some regions because of climate change?
“No, it didn’t,” he said. “It started because somebody lit a match. I mean there are 250 people as I understand it, or more, that have been charged with arson. That’s not climate change.”
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Fact Check has already looked at the question of whether arson is primarily to blame for the bushfire crisis, following a flurry of claims made on social media and by some politicians that most of the fires this summer had been deliberately lit by an “unprecedented” number of arsonists.
Bushfire arson is not an insignificant problem. But in the context of the current bushfire crisis, there is simply no evidence that arson was overwhelmingly responsible, or even moderately responsible.
On the contrary, in Victoria, emergency services personnel have been at pains to point out that lightning strikes caused the big fires — in East Gippsland and the north-east.
Likewise, in NSW, emergency services personnel have pointed to dry lightning storms as the cause of most of the big fires.
Nor is there any evidence to indicate bushfire arson has increased to “unprecedented” levels, as some in the Morrison government has suggested.
What does the data show?
At present, official data only exists for the year to September 2019.
In Victoria, the number of intentionally caused bushfire offences peaked in 2016 but fell to a level well below the 10-year average over the year to September.
Data provided to Fact Check by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research tells a similar story. The number of people facing police action for bushfires that were deliberately lit was below the 10-year average in 2019, having peaked in 2014.
Moreover, as Fact Check previously pointed out, so-called “natural fires” — generally started by lightning strikes — are likely to be much larger and more remote than fires caused by arsonists, which tend to be started in closer proximity to urban areas.
David Bowman, a leading bushfire expert who is also a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, told Fact Check recently that many of the big fires in the current crisis were known to have been caused by lightning strikes, having originated in remote areas after storms.
“We know there are lightning storms that have caused these fires,” Bowman said.
“One of the signatures of arson is that arson [occurs] in proximity to people. Many of these fires have been burning in remote and inaccessible areas, so there is a significant lightning component.”
Where does the 250 figure come from?
But what about Dutton’s specific claim in relation to the current crisis that “250 people … or more” have been charged with arson?
Dutton was less than precise with his wording. He did not specify the months he was referring to, nor whether he was talking about “bushfire” arson, or arson more broadly.
Fact Check contacted Dutton’s office seeking clarification and a source for the data he was referring to. His office said he had nothing to add.
Given the context for his comments, it is reasonable to assume he was referring to bushfire arson in relation to the current 2019-20 crisis.
As previously pointed out by Fact Check, comparing data on bushfire arson can be problematic. Different jurisdictions and government agencies take different approaches when recording and defining arson as a crime.
As the report of the 2009 Black Saturday royal commission pointed out: “Some jurisdictions adopt a broad definition, deeming all suspicious fires to be arson; others might limit the term to those fires for which there is a prima facie, or even a proven, case of arson.”
Keeping this in mind, this is what we know:
- NSW: 55 people faced “legal action” over alleged deliberately-lit bushfires between August 1, 2019, and January 24, 2020. It is important to bear in mind that “legal action” is not necessarily the same as being “charged” — as Dutton expressed it. According to NSW Police, the legal action ranges in seriousness from the issuing of a “caution” to the laying of a criminal charge. We don’t know how many of the 55 were specifically charged for deliberately lighting a fire.
- Victoria: A Victoria Police spokeswoman said: “There is currently no intelligence to indicate that the fires in East Gippsland and the North East have been caused by arson or any other suspicious behaviour.” She said there had been a number of arrests in relation to arson for scrub fires during the current bushfire season, although these were not related to the bushfires that consumed parts of East Gippsland and the north-east.
- Queensland: From September 10 2019 to the present, 109 people have been “dealt with” by police for offences relating to recklessly and/or deliberately setting bushfires. Of these, 36 were adults and 73 were juveniles. Importantly, the figures provided by Queensland Police do not distinguish between “recklessly” and “deliberately” starting a fire. Further, according to Queensland Police, in a large number of cases the fires were started by school-age children, whether “recklessly” or “deliberately”.
- South Australia: Since September 1 2019, 12 people have been charged with causing a bushfire. Again, the figures do not distinguish between those bushfires that were “intentionally” or “recklessly” started. This would be determined by the courts, under South Australian legislation.
- Western Australia: 10 people have been charged with offences linked to bushfire arson since December 1, 2019. A Western Australia Police spokeswoman noted that “the majority of fires where a large amount of bushland was burnt [were] caused by lightning”.
- Tasmania: Between August 1 2019 and February 6 2020, there were three charges and three youth cautions for “unlawfully setting fire to vegetation”. A spokeswoman for Tasmania Police said this offence most closely aligned with “bushfire arson” in Tasmania.
- ACT: No charges have been laid for bushfire arson for the current fire season. According to the Australian Federal Police, there has been one charge for lighting fire on a total fire ban day, with a further two incidents being investigated.
- NT: Since the middle of last year, six people have been charged with causing a bushfire, either with “intent” or “recklessly”.
Difficult to be definitive
What can we conclude from all of this? Because of the varying methods used to record the data by law enforcement agencies, and the different legal definitions that apply across the states and territories, it is difficult to be definitive.
As the Black Saturday royal commission report put it, “arson” involves the “requisite intention” to cause damage or have no regard for the damage that might result from a fire.
However, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory do not for the purposes of data collection, distinguish between “deliberately” lit fires — generally a prerequisite for arson — and “recklessly” causing one, for example by ignoring a total fire ban.
Taking all of this into consideration, the figures suggest that no more than 195 people have been either charged with deliberately or recklessly starting a fire.
More than half the total (109) comes from Queensland, where there is no distinction between recklessly and deliberately lighting a fire. A significant number (55), are from NSW, where the figures include people who have not been charged but are facing less serious consequences such as being “cautioned”.
An examination of the public record and statements by law enforcement agencies does not support Dutton’s claim that 250 people have been charged with arson during the current bushfire season.
And as experts have noted, attempting to “criminalise” the crisis misses a bigger point.
Regardless of how bushfires are started, hotter, drier conditions are exacerbating their impact.
This is where climate change comes in.