By Legal Eagle

Fire in Bunyip State Forest - taken from The Age website. Photo - Jason South

The smoke from the Victorian bushfires is casting a pall over the mountains today, providing a sombre reminder of the devastation which occurred on Saturday. Elvis, the fire-fighting helicopter, has a flight path which goes just above my parents’ house, and has been going back and forth constantly.

Saturday was the hottest day recorded in Victoria since records have been kept, with a strong northerly wind blowing. Once, when I was traveling in Egypt, at midnight, I saw the wind blowing across the desert. I headed outside in the anticipation of a cool breeze, but when I went out, the wind was hot; like that breath of hot air that hits you in the face when you open the oven. On Saturday, it was like a wind from the desert was blowing across the whole State. A terrible day for a bushfire.

The number of deaths keeps rising hour by hour, and whole towns have been razed to the ground. Many people have also been injured and horrifically burned. Hospitals are overflowing. My heart goes out to all of the people affected by the bushfires, and I salute the bravery of those who have helped to fight the fires and to rescue people

The worst thing about it all is the possibility that at least some of these fires were deliberately lit by arsonists. Police are treating each fire site as a potential crime scene. I can’t fathom why someone would do a terrible thing like that. The Australian Institute of Criminology has a Bushfire Arson Bulletin which tries to answer the question of why people set bushfires. Apparently:

A person who lights a bushfire is more likely to be looking for some kind of psychological rather than material reward. Some may try to boost low self-esteem or social identity by showing the power they can wield by starting a bushfire. The firesetter may feel a sense of control as they see fire services rushing to deal with the fire they have created. Some arsonists will seek recognition or attention through their fires. The fire may create the chance to be seen as a ‘hero’ for reporting the fire or even fighting it. Among serial bushfire arsonists there may be a high prevalence of histrionic personality disorder, characterised by dysfunctional attention-seeking and emotionality. Some bushfires are lit for excitement or thrills. The firesetter may seek stimulation from the sights and sounds of flames, sirens, fire engines, uniforms and aircraft.

In many cases bushfires, like urban fires, may be lit under the influence of a number of factors operating together. Lighting a fire in the bush might be a way of relieving boredom and creating excitement, but also a chance to gain recognition from reporting it. A firesetter may be angry at society and also suffering from a psychological disorder, though the two might be unrelated.

It is notoriously difficult to prosecute arson cases, and only a small proportion of suspected arson cases ever result in a successful prosecution. If caught, perpetrators may be charged with arson causing death pursuant to s 197A of the Crimes Act, which carries a maximum 25 year sentence. The Federal Attorney General has indicated that perpetrators could also be charged with murder. Presumably this would be on the basis that the perpetrator was reckless and knew or believed that death would probably be the result of his or her actions (R v Crabbe (1985) 58 ALR 417). Even those who did not deliberately cause fires, but were reckless may be charged with an offence, pursuant to s 201A of the Crimes Act. It is suspected that one of the fires was caused by a lit cigarette butt being thrown from a passing car or truck into a vacant lot.

As a lawyer, one tends to feel a bit helpless; but I was pleased to see that the Victorian Law Institute has offered free legal advice to anyone affected by the bushfires. The Law Institute pointed out free legal advice could help those who had lost their homes and documents or those people who might have issues related to contracts, loans, mortgages, employment or wills as a result of the bushfires. The service can be accessed by calling (03) 9607 9550.

There are a number of Relief Funds to which you can donate. Be careful, however, of unscrupulous scammers attempting to cash in on the outpouring of public sympathy (geez, there’s some real pond scum out there).


Discussion of “stay or go” policy on LP, and the comments thread delves into the best way to prevent future disasters.

Update 2

Armagnac’d has a personal post on affected friends. I hope they’re okay.

A moving piece on the 1939 bushfires at Barista.

And Guy Beres, Pavlov’s Cat, Helen at Cast Iron Balcony, Bruce at Thinker’s Podium, Tim Blair and the Hoydens all have posts too.

Another suggestion is to give blood, if you can. I would if I could, but I’m not allowed, as I lived in the UK during the BSE era – always knew I was a mad cow!

Update 3

A sensible piece from Tobias over at Not a Hedgehog.

What really annoys me is the present tendency to want to blame one cause (whether it’s arsonists, greenies, global warming or even abortion).

As I said over at Not a Hedgehog, it looks like there was a combination of causes – insanely hot weather, strong and changing winds, some instances of arson (but not for all the fires), some ill-conceived planning decisions and perhaps some ill-conceived forest management decisions and just plain old bad luck.

I also agree that if we want to stop arsonists, we should look at nipping the behaviour in the bud rather than locking these people up ex post facto – as well as being alert for signs that someone might have a problem.


  1. Posted February 9, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    That’s good news about the Law Institute — it’s sickening when you realise that you’ve lost so many documents that you can’t prove that you exist.

  2. Posted February 9, 2009 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks LE, good post. I had a strange personal example of this in my teens. We had managed to get hold of some fireworks and boys being boys we split into two teams, separated by a thicket of bush, and began hurling bungers at each other. There’s a surprise, we started a bushfire.

    The rest of us were furiously trying to put the fire out. We did. But this memory is still burned into my recollection. At one point during our efforts I looked up to see one of us just standing there and laughing. Immediately I thought: there is something wrong with him.

    Some years later this chap was involved in various minor legal fracas. Mostly harmless stuff. He was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic and for most of his adult life has lived under State care.

    This link

    brings to mind some research that came up recently. It was found that in children from very poor backgrounds their EEGs were similiar to those who had suffered brain damage. Significant in these findings was a loss of function in the prefrontal cortex, which is very important in modulating impulse control and in understanding how the world works. This is, of course, John just engaging in more arm waving. Cognitive stuff is not my forte and I am very cynical about current attempts to extrapolate such findings to the behavioral realm. We have too much to learn.

  3. Florence Howarth
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    What worries me is the assumption that all bush fires are deliberately started. There are other reasons why we have fires. Natural causes such as storms and wind. High winds causing power lines to sprk. Glass and other rubbish laying in the sun. Grass clippings exploding into flames. If we ignore cases of fires, we will never solve the problems. Yes humans that start fires need to be punished. Education of the general public making them aware of the tisks would be more worthwhile. Urgent research also required.

  4. Posted February 11, 2009 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    They ARE ok, thanks for the wellwishes.

  5. Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Florence, totally agree – as I said in the post above, some fires could have been started through carelessness rather than deliberate behaviour.

    I almost started a bushfire once. I inadequately put out a fire and the next day I came back to a black square. Luckily the season and the criss cross of paths stopped the fire’s progress. It’s very easy.

    But several fires might indicate a co-ordinated effort. Planned. That’s diabolical and if that happened and if they get caught they’re not going to see much of the 21st century.

    Oh. Wait. This is Victoria. They’ll probably get counselling. 🙂

  6. Posted February 11, 2009 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    if we’re getting hotter and drier, we’re going to have to be more careful

    No. You are lying.

    Climate change will solve all our bushfire problems

One Trackback

  1. By skepticlawyer » Playing with fire on April 17, 2010 at 10:28 am

    […] has been on former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon and her performance during the Black Saturday bushfires on 7 February last year. 174 people were killed and many houses were lost. Nixon retired from the […]

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