John McCain

The kicker is that arson costs the Australia and community 1.6 billion annually. Bean-counters love these figures and at the risk of being superficial, that cost alone should stimulate further research because the same figure was used in the previous report mentioned earlier and it suggests that our so-called social scientists and forensic specialists, especially those of an academic bent, spend far too much time shining the seats of their pants and discussing postmodernism and deconstructionism without getting their hands and clothes dirty; enduring the privations of fieldwork and providing psychiatrists and psychologists with more data to fill what is very obviously a knowledge gap in the study of arson.

This is a deplorable situation in the world’s driest and most fire-prone inhabited continent. It is high time that more research funding was directed to empirical research and report writing. No matter what we find, the rule of law must apply and we should not allow ourselves to be pushed back into the past by the forces of darkness.

Part 1

Like many Australians, I have recoiled in horror from the bushfires which swept through Victoria over the past week, while at the same time marveling at massive flooding in Queensland. It would appear that we just can’t get the rain where it is needed most. For the moment, there is a lull in proceedings but the weather forecast for next week could well mean further fires in Victoria, New South Wales and quite possibly, parts of Tasmania. While visiting a good friend of mine in Hobart, we naturally talked about fires and with a little assistance from him, I hope to contribute to the debate. However, I am concerned to ensure that in writing for Tasmanian Times, I am not dragged into the arguments between conservationists and foresters, logging contractors and greenies and to that end, I offer a few comments.

Ever since humankind discovered the use of fire whether for making weapons, keeping warm or cooking, it has been proven time and time again that bushfires, scrub fires, forest fires, call them what you will can do enormous damage. Tasmanians look back to 1967 and the horrific fires that reached into the outer metropolitan areas and most of those living on the mainland have had their share, especially South Australia and Victoria and New South Wales and a few years ago, the Australian Capital Territory. In the 200 years of white settlement in Australia, we have accumulated an impressive list of major fires and given them appropriate names such as Black Thursday (1851) Red Tuesday (1898) Black Friday (1939) Black Tuesday (1967) Ash Wednesday (1983) and in more recent times, the devastating fires that ripped through Canberra in mid-January 2003. However, in most if not all respects, the fires that devastated Victoria earlier this month are the most graphic and tragic in terms of lives lost and property destroyed.

Watching TV footage and listening to the sound of the fire, I was struck, as always, by the sound and the fury of the event. I have had the misfortune to be in the path of a bushfire on a couple of occasions but managed to extricate myself with no damage. The origins of catastrophic bushfires can be many, from the carelessness of a dropped cigarette butt; sun shining through a broken bottle; lightning strikes; controlled or regeneration burns getting out of hand to the deliberate act of firebugs.

Far better qualified people than me can write on the way urban sprawl has collided with the bush or the way our planning laws allow people to build houses in close proximity to plantations. Getting away and living green is often a powerful inducement for those with the money, while others in small country towns are there for reasons of history and family. No matter the risk, people will elect to dwell in rural areas which are prone to fire and every year, we are told by the authorities to make our houses safe and take adequate precautions. We are enjoined to take precautions and make evacuation plans or stand and fight.

In several news reports, the Victorian fires were described as “a firestorm” and it is easy to accept that description. It used to be said that eucalyptus trees were the most fire prone but a friend of mine in CSIRO has produced compelling scientific evidence that the speed of fires among eucalyptus and the bush had its origins in low humidity, high temperatures, abundant ground fuel (undergrowth) winds and either bloody-mindedness or incompetence in the construction of buildings; warning and alarm systems and what might be called a relaxed attitude to the problems associated with the foregoing.

The prevailing myth that eucalyptus forests are more dangerous than pine forests has been laid to rest. Pretty much the same phenomenon occurs once a fire gains a foothold, especially with high temperatures and wind. Trees catch fire and in the case of eucalyptus, so-called crown fires jump from tree to tree, alarmingly quickly. That is where eucalyptus oil is heated to become nearly gaseous and the trees are literally primed to catch by advancing flames and embers. As the fire front advances through the crowns of trees, at ground level, the undergrowth and other dry material provide ready fuel for the hunger of raging fire. Historically, t was often said that pine forests/plantations were safer than eucalypts but this is somewhat of a diversionary argument. Eucalypt re-growth is more usual than pine because the eucalyptus tends to drop branches and bark and it is not unusual to see from an apparently well-burned tree, new green life after rain. Various filming techniques, utilizing among other things, infrared photography shows the difference between a eucalypt and pine forest fire. The pine trees contain their own deadly fluid, turpentine, which begins to evaporate as temperatures rise and pine trees literally explode. The evaporation can be seen as a gas cloud above the trees. Scientific film of fires in the two types of forest is not that different except that pine trees tend to burn more thoroughly and not regenerate. So it was no surprise to hear on the excellent but highly disturbing coverage provided by our TV stations, the sound effects as trees exploded, quite literally.

Man domesticated fire for his own use but it turns in our hand: not a servant but a lethal and ferocious master. What do we make of people who deliberately light fires? We tend to call them firebugs; arsonists; hooligans and so on without fully considering until a major disaster, that a comparatively simple act can kill and if apprehended, and there is a crime on the statute books considered murder-arson. A good friend of mine in the police force told me of an incident a couple of years ago where kids had lit fires in a public housing area and as the police and firemen arrived, they attracted an audience, some of whom had started the fires and as fast as the fires were being put out, young lads were racing ahead of firemen lighting new fires. At the time, I wondered why police on trial bikes were not out apprehending the pestilent youths but apparently at the time, they lacked the appropriate motorcycles.

The Victorian fires of 2009 will go down in the short history of this country as probably the most deadly in terms of lives lost. I gather that the Prime Minister has plans for a national day of mourning; churches will be conducting prayer services and there will and inquiries focusing on cause and effect. No doubt, in the fullness of time, memorials will be erected to those who lost their lives in the fires or fighting them. Arguments will continue to rage over warnings about the likelihood of fires and the construction of bunkers for refuge. I’m not a total dummy when it comes to bunkers: I’ve seen many and unless they are completely sealed, the air will be sucked out of them as hot fire sweeps across the area, and the poor devils left inside will suffer asphyxiation and possibly combustion. This matter of bunker construction is something that merits very serious consideration and when a bushfire becomes a firestorm, survival chances are greatly reduced. Hopefully priority will be given to urban planning and shelter from fires. That brings us to the question of the arseholes who light fires.

Deliberately lit fires: the crux of the matter

Who among us can honestly say that at one stage or another they have not been utterly fascinated by a flame/flames. It might be a candle during a power cut; candles on a birthday or Christmas cake or the warm comfort of a hearth. Although open fireplaces indoors are something of a rarity these days, there is something about them, the magnetism of flames and colors of wood or coal embers. Unfortunately, that fascination goes further with some people. According to ABC news on February 1, a mere six days before the horrific fires that swept through a band across Victoria, a report from the Australian Institute of Criminology reveals that over half of all bushfires are deliberately lit. Naturally enough, in the era of economic rationalism, the report went on to say that the annual cost of arson was about $1.6 billion. The AIC paper can be found at

While it is entirely a coincidence that the report should be mentioned a matter of days before the horrific events in Victoria, and a lot of people will not want to read it, the ABC extracted several points: they included; “…there are inconsistencies in the ways fire agencies throughout Australia record data and that getting a consistent figure about deliberately lit bushfires is difficult. …The report makes a number of recommendations including better education campaigns in the community and schools. It also recommends areas vulnerable to bushfires be protected by restricted access and other means. The recommendations will be looked at by the country’s emergency management ministers. Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland says he will address concerns raised in the report. Penalties imposed by the states can be up to 15 years jail for arson, but the report says there is a wide disparity of sentences and culprits are rarely caught and convicted.”

Part of me wants to scream that this is yet another case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Consider the following from the AIC report, which is accompanied by a graphic in a fairly common pie chart entitled “known vegetation fire causes (percent)”: Figure 1: ‘Known’ vegetation fire causes (percent)

Source: Combined Australian fire agencies [computer data file]

The report cites quite bluntly that although Australia is particularly fire prone (owing to a variety of factors including climate and vegetation) only 6% of vegetation fires attended by fire services arose from natural causes. Over 90% of the direct result of the action of people’s actions “and more often than not the result of deliberate ignitions; incendiary (maliciously lit fires) and suspicious fires account for one-half of known fire causes in Australia, and are the largest single cause of vegetation fires.”

This is pretty horrific statistical data by anyone’s measure. However, while the report goes on to talk about the difficulties of collecting accurate information largely because of jurisdictional problems, and the fact that fire data supplied by the individual agencies varies in quality but is increasingly improving, “the analysis highlighted limitations in database design that affect the capacity to accurately and unambiguously document factors surrounding the causes of a fire and effectively integrate and analyse data within and across agencies. Also, due to the complexities of the database, some training to assist fire officers in the accurate recording of incidents with the Australian Incident Reporting System database may be required, together with ongoing data quality assessment. Poor data quality hinders the capacity of an organisation to utilise this resource to implement fire reduction strategies.”

This is staggering in itself but typical of the type of research that increasingly plagues government and private enterprise. What do we learn of the people who set fires; where they occur (time and place) and of the motives of those involved? While focusing on the problems of research, which are common enough, the report was able to state that where the data was available, 24% of fires was started by children, and moreover, those files were likely to be on urban fringes. The report states that the highest rates were reported by metropolitan/urban fire services; that children under 16 years of age are likely to be “significant contributors” to the incidents of vegetation fires in all jurisdictions and that there was a higher likelihood of fire between 3 pm. and 6 pm., Monday to Friday. Is there a correlation between kids leaving school and not being able to go home directly? As sure as night follows day, that will be the conclusion drawn by certain segments of the population.

It is not my intention to write a systematic critique of the report. As a good friend and confidant, who helped me with the analysis of report, has often stated: the analyst has to do the best with the data provided. It should not come as any shock to learn that so-called broad zones adjacent to areas of human habitation. Although there has been a long-standing and great fear of fires sweeping out of the bush to engulf communities, this is a comparatively rare event and the report concluded “that between one third and a half of all vegetation fires attended by fire services in any state or territory occur in and around the capital city, with the greatest concentrations evident in the broad zone along the urban interface – the zone where people and vegetation coexist and interact. Similarly, high numbers of vegetation fires are associated with major regional centres, compared with neighbouring rural areas.”

Get that? Got it? Good! In other words, we are both perpetrators and victims of these great disasters. Possibly the worst thing about reading this particular report is that it does not detail lives lost either in or fighting fires. Given the huge blazes in Canberra and now Victoria, perhaps more attention will be given by coroners and empirical researchers, to say nothing of government, schools and hopefully, parents. The last thing I want to do at the moment is to buy into the argument about plantations, urban sprawl and their relation to fires. I am far more concerned with the mentality of those who light fires.

The political and public response – credit where credit is due

Before I look at the psychopathology of people who like to light fires, I think everybody should acknowledge the courage of fire-fighters, survivors, victims (including the deceased who stayed to fight) the emergency services in general and above all, the overwhelming and generous response of the Australian public in every state. A friend of mine is quietly despairing about the loss of community in Tasmania but in the face of this national tragedy, everyone appears to have pitched in and for moments that seemed all too short, political differences were buried. Government and Opposition were as one, speaking both inside and outside Parliament and this is a testament to the greatness of the Australian people. There were discordant notes and I shall refer to them later.

The wonderful thing about the political response was that no one sought to score points: Labor, Liberal, National, Greens and independents alike, stood shoulder to shoulder. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in describing the bushfires as: “one of the darkest days of Australia’s peacetime history” in Parliament unashamedly shed tears. She was not the only one to do so, male and female bonded by the sheer horror of the event. She also commented that 7 February 2009 will go down in history as blacker than the previous tragedies of Black Friday 1939 and Ash Wednesday of 1983 -she added that: “February 7, 2009 would be remembered as a day of tragedy, courage and sheer luck.” Other politicians made extremely moving speeches from the heart but missing from Ms. Gillard’s speech was in fact one key element, malice.

Despair speaks for itself

It was only right and proper that it was not mentioned in the immediate aftermath. My opinion of the Prime Minister is irrelevant but I shall never forget him standing with victims near bushfires that had been subdued – the man had aged 30 years almost overnight. My heart went out to him along with everyone else involved in or touched by the fires, with the exception of the perpetrators. I don’t care much for Malcolm Turnbull but he showed dignity and support for all concerned and in so doing gained some respect from me. He also painted a word picture that I would like readers to remember and it was in the context of living the harsh realities of a beautiful country: “Surely it is a terrible beauty and we have seen the full terror of that beauty in the last few days… that Saturday was such a day, freakishly high temperatures, ferocious winds, a savage brute of a day, the like of which Victorians have never seen and would hope never to see again. That is the cruel paradox of the land in which we live.” Up to a point he was correct but those of us who survived Ash Wednesday 1983 would argue that once again, we saw in the words of Dorothy Mackellar, “the beauty and the terror” of that “wide brown land.”

Moving away from politics for a moment, given the scale of the devastation; the number of lives lost and the circumstances surrounding those dreadful days, it is hardly surprising that the police became involved early on and instituted Operation Phoenix; headed by the outgoing Victorian Commissioner of Police Christine Nixon, a character who appears to divide police and public. Phoenix is probably an apt name because it signifies a mystic creature rising from the ashes but many years ago, that name was associated with something far more sinister. However, we have learned that there has been an extensive examination of the causes and starting points of fires and that police will be working overtime, while fire-fighters prepare for the next round. The nature of such fires is that they are never completely extinguished in the massive efforts we see on TV, with fire trucks and water-bombers: it takes the human effort to get in, get down and do the dirty work of subduing any embers that could be fanned by fresh winds and removing material that could accelerate another fire.

Apart from the wonderful charitable effort of people right across Australia, many turned to the church for solace and it is worth remembering that in our increasingly secular society, people turn to religion in times of dire need. It is hardly surprising that the clergy assist the efforts of emergency workers, some of them having experienced their churches burned down and their homes destroyed. I do not think it right to single out any particular organization or person for praise in the aftermath of this tragedy. But it would be remiss of me not to mention the Salvation Army, which is ever present when disaster strikes and quietly, without fanfare, offer help, assistance and comfort as required.

John McCain
Part 2 will be published next week